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Why Howard Marks is issuing a warning to Warren Buffett and quotes Cathie Woods

Even billionaires are suffering from the pandemic blues.

"It seems like every day is the same as the last," complains Oaktree Capital founder and legendary debt investor Howard Marks in his most recent memo.

"Weekdays aren't that much different from weekends in terms of feeling" (this was especially true pre-vaccine when we rarely ate out or visited others). In the last two years, we've only taken one vacation of a one-week duration. The best way to summarize it is to draw a parallel with Groundhog Day: "Every day feels remarkably similar to the day before."

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 grind does not appear to have improved Marks' disposition. His latest memo is, to put it mildly, depressing. He expresses disillusionment with the state of American politics ("Serious potential threats to our democracy exist, and no one can predict what the future holds in this regard"), generational inequality ("The Baby Boomers have been and continue to consume more than their fair share of the pie," he writes), and the future of the United States. In addition to the apparent expectation that the Federal Reserve will run monetary policy, support markets, and now fight climate change ("How many roles can one institution have and still maintain a coherent effort?"), there is also the apparent expectation that the Federal Reserve will run monetary policy, support markets, and fight climate change.

It's a fascinating collection of ideas, particularly when you consider the collision of US politics with the potential need to raise taxes or cut welfare spending as the population grows older. Who knows what kind of a shambles this could turn into.

However, for investors, the top half of the memo, in which Marks discusses investing and inflation and how technology connects these two ideas, is the most important part to pay attention to.

Great investors are often scarred by events that occurred during their formative years when it comes to investing. For Marks, the rise and subsequent fall of the original US growth stocks in the 1960s – a group known as the Nifty Fifty – is an event that he revisits on a regular basis.

Marks sees many parallels between the growth stock boom of the 1980s and the growth stock boom of the 2000s and beyond. The author writes that this was "one of post-war America's first significant brushes with newness."


"Even more absurdly, investors embraced these companies because of their revolutionary newness, but they somehow assumed that a newer and better new thing would never come along to displace them," says the author.

It's no surprise that nearly half of the Nifty Fifty have gone out of business or been acquired by other companies.

Although the world appeared to be changing much more slowly in the 1960s than it does now, Marks argues that this presents an increased opportunity for rapid disruption to today's leaders than it did then.

"Anyone who believes that all of the companies on today's list of leading growth companies will still be around in five or ten years will stand a good chance of being proven wrong," says Marks.

"This signals the beginning of a new world order for investors. Stable, defensive, and moat are all terms that will become less relevant in the future. Much of investing will necessitate a higher level of technical expertise than was previously required. Furthermore, investments based on the assumption that tomorrow will be the same as today must be subjected to significantly increased scrutiny."

The word "moat" is used several times in this passage, and it stands out remarkably. Warren Buffett is not mentioned in this article. Still, he is widely recognized as having popularized the concept of a company's value being linked to an economic moat that provides a competitive advantage over its competitors.

Marks' message is that, because of technological advancements and the rapid pace of change in the modern world, moats will be breached much more quickly and efficiently than in the past. The situation appears to be a call for a different type of investor, one who is perhaps less hung up on the tried and true methods of the past and more willing to consider the implications of technological advancements, according to the surface appearance.

Even going one step further, we might wonder whether investing for the long term – those decades-long bets that Buffett is famous for – will become more difficult in this rapidly changing environment.

Of course, Buffett isn't the only one in this market thinking very long term in this market.

By purchasing high-growth technology stock that trades at a stratospheric valuation, investors are making an implicit bet that the company will experience sustained growth over the long term and will be able to increase its earnings to the point where it grows into its valuation over time.

This is not an impossible feat, as Marks demonstrates in the Nifty Fifty. Still, investors can fall into the trap of erroneously assuming that the same spirit of disruption and innovation that drives today's winners will not drive tomorrow's rising stars.

This brings us neatly to Cathie Wood of ARK Invest, one of the world's most prominent and polarizing investors in very long-term technology trends, who makes an unexpected appearance in Marks' latest memo.

As rising inflation fears wreak havoc on high-growth technology stocks, Wood and ARK are having a rough time right now. The ARK Innovation ETF, which has become a proxy for the hypergrowth, futuristic end of the market, reached its recent high on November 1 and has since fallen by 15 percent.

Beginning by stating that Wood may have misquoted him by implying that he believes technology has the potential to cause a deflationary bust; Marks claims that he asserted that technology could be a deflationary factor in the economy;

The suggestion made by Wood that not only can technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence act as a deflationary force, but they can also provide a boost to productivity that Wood claims will be greater than anything we've seen "certainly in modern times" has piqued Marks' interest. According to the ARK model, this productivity boom could boost the US GDP to $US40 trillion ($55.2 trillion) by 2035, far exceeding linear estimates of GDP of $US28 billion at the time.

Marks is intrigued by the notion that technological advancements could reduce the number of hours worked while also increasing the amount of output produced per hour worked. "In other words, technological advancements have the potential to increase GDP while simultaneously increasing unemployment."

His point is that, while inflation is currently in vogue – as Wood is well aware from the pressure on her holdings – investors should not discount the possibility that technology will act as a deflationary force in the long run.