Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Howard Marks: Oil prices expose 'debt's weaknesses'

Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Howard Marks thinks that the drop in oil prices could finally expose low lending standards and ultimately provide better value in the markets.

"We've argued for a few years that credit standards were dropping as investors—chasing yield—became less disciplined and less discerning. But we knew buying opportunities wouldn't arrive until a negative 'igniter' caused the tide to go out, exposing the debt's weaknesses," the Oaktree Capital Management chairman wrote in a note to clients late Thursday.

"The current oil crisis is an example of something with the potential to grow into that role. We'll see how far it goes."

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Marks noted that energy is a significant part of the high-yield bond market and the fall in prices could have "potentially substantial" effects, including capital outflows from bonds and the selling of mutual and exchange-traded funds.

Quoting from analysis by others at Oaktree, Marks wrote that if such "panicky" selling gets to sectors in "fundamentally fine shape," it could create opportunities for buyers like Oaktree.

Marks avoided predicting the correct price for crude oil, which has fallen by nearly 40 percent this year. But he did hint now may be a good time to invest relative to the past.

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"It feels much better to buy assets while they're rising. But it's usually smarter to buy after they've fallen for a while," Marks wrote, noting how fickle investors tend to buy at high prices but usually think falling prices have further to drop. "Bottom line ... there's little logic in investor psychology."

Marks also noted that it was hard for people to think through all the effects of the oil drop.

They could include negatives like banks being hit by bad loans to oil industry companies and budget crunches for oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia, Russia and Brunei. Positives could include automakers benefiting from people buying larger cars and aerospace companies buying more planes from increased demand for flights.

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Oaktree specializes in debt investing and manages $93.2 billion across a variety of private and public funds, according to its website.