Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Baupost's Klarman sees poor outlook for stocks

Star hedge fund manager Seth Klarman sees few bargains in the current environment and predicted on Tuesday that the stock market could suffer another lost decade without any gains.

"Given the recent run-up, I'd be worried that we'll have another 10 years of zero returns," Klarman, who rarely speaks in public, said at the CFA Institute's annual conference in Boston.

Current market conditions remind Klarman of a Hostess Twinkie snack cake because "everything is being manipulated by the government" and appears "artificial."

"I'm more worried about the world broadly than I've ever been in my whole career," Klarman said.

Klarman has 30 percent of assets at his $22 billion Baupost Group in cash, he said. He started the firm in 1982 with $27 million and has averaged 20 percent annual gains ever since. In 2007, amid the depths of the credit crash, Baupost had its best year, gaining 52 percent.

Inflation is a risk that Klarman said he is particularly concerned with given the government's high rate of borrowing to bail out the financial system. Baupost has purchased far out-of-the-money puts on bonds to hedge the risk, he said.

The puts, which Klarman said he viewed as "cheap insurance," will expire worthless even if long-term interest rates rise to 6 or 7 percent. But if rates rise to 10 percent, Baupost would make large gains, and if rates exceed 20 percent the firm could make 50 or 100 times its outlay.

Typically, Baupost focuses on out-of-favor stocks and bonds. Klarman cleaned up in 2007 and 2008 buying distressed debt and mortgage securities that later recovered.

One area Klarman said he is currently scouring for potential investments is private commercial real estate below the top quality. Publicly traded real estate investment trusts, however, have "rallied enormously" and are "quite unattractive," he said.

Copies of Klarman's long out-of-print investment guide, "Margin of Safety," sell at auction for $700 or more. Klarman said on Tuesday he has "no immediate plan" to reissue the book published in 1991 because he does not have enough free time to update it or even to write a fresh introduction.

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