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Howard Marks on Luck and Skill in Investing

March 3, 2015

by Justin Kermond

Howard Marks

When Howard Marks graduated from the Booth School of Business of the University of Chicago, he was turned down for the one job he really wanted. That, he said, was the luckiest moment of his career. The firm that turned him down was Lehman Brothers.

Marks is the co-chairman and founder of Oaktree Capital Management. He spoke to an audience of investment professionals and MBA students at the annual MIT Sloan Investment conferencein Cambridge on February 20th.

His talk was moderated by Randy Cohen, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School. Marks and Cohen discussed a range of topics, including his luck and skill in career choices, the lack of efficacy in forecasting, the importance of second-level thinking, investing in the current interest rate environment and the ingredients for investment success.

On luck and skill in career choices

Marks said he was not the kid who started reading prospectuses at nine years old and then invested his bar mitzvah money. Before deciding on a career in finance, he considered being a history professor, an architect, an advertising man and an accountant. Before graduating from the University of Chicago, he interviewed for jobs in corporate treasury, banking, investment management, investment banking, accounting and consulting.

But he got lucky when he was turned down for the one job he was sure he wanted. Marks recounted that the recruiter had decided to hire Marks, but the partner in charge of making the final hire came in to work hung over that morning. He offered the job to the wrong guy. If it wasn’t for that piece of bad luck, he said, he could have spent the first 30 years of his career at Lehman Brothers, ultimately ending up with nothing for whatever equity stake he might have earned.

Luck is very important, according to Marks, and he advised the future MBAs to “put themselves in the way of good luck” as opportunities only come around once in a while and you have to take them.

On the lack of efficacy in forecasting

Forecasters have been very poor and consistently so, Marks said. In the summer of 2013, forecasters unanimously predicted that rates would go up after Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke started talking about tapering. This was the most important decision in 2013 and most forecasters got it wrong as rates went down. He credited Jeffrey Gundlach at DoubleLine for being one of the few who got this decision right.