11/17/2014 03:31 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

How Prudent Investors Should Handle An Environment Of "Low Returns"

First off, if you are expecting to achieve historical average rates of return from stocks or bonds from current prices please go read, "How To Time The Market Like Warren Buffett." The bottom line is a 10-year treasury note pays you little more than 2% per year and stocks are likely to earn you even less over the next decade. So what's a prudent investor to do? Here's Howard Marks on your options:

How might one cope in a market that seems to be offering low returns?

1) Invest as if it's not true. The trouble with this is that "wishing won't make it so." Simply put, it doesn't make sense to expect traditional returns when elevated asset prices suggest they're not available. I was pleased to get a letter from Peter Bernstein in response to my memo, in which he said something wonderful: "The market's not a very accommodating machine; it won't provide high returns just because you need them."
2) Invest anyway -- trying for acceptable relative returns under the circumstances, even if they're not attractive in the absolute.
3) Invest anyway -- ignoring short-run risk and focusing on the long run. This isn't irrational, especially if you accept the notion that market timing and tactical asset allocation are difficult. But before taking this path, I'd suggest that you get a commitment from your investment committee or other constituents that they'll ignore short-term losses.
4) Hold cash -- but that's tough for people who need to meet an actuarial assumption or spending rate; who want their money to be "fully employed" at all times; or who'll be uncomfortable (or lose their jobs) if they have to watch for long as others make money they don't.
5) Concentrate your investments in "special niches and special people," as I've been droning on about for the last couple of years. But that gets harder as the size of your portfolio grows. And identifying managers with truly superior talent, discipline and staying power certainly isn't easy.

The truth is, there's no easy answer for investors faced with skimpy prospective returns and risk premiums. But there is one course of action -- one classic mistake -- that I most strongly feel is wrong: reaching for return.

-Howard Marks, "There They Go Again," May 6, 2005

Clearly, investors are currently "reaching for return" like never before. I have no doubt this episode will any any differently than it has in the past. For prudent investors, however, I think the best options are currently either 3 or 4, so long as they understand all the pros and cons of each.

Choosing the third option means you should be willing to tolerate another decline of up to 50% over the next decade in an attempt to capture the low single-digit returns stocks currently offer. That's just the simple risk/reward equation current valuations present investors with.

Choosing the fourth option means you may have to hear your friends brag about their gains for a while should the market witness another bubblicious blow off akin to the 1998-1999 episode.

Which is the lesser of the two evils for you? Neither are very appealing but that's the name of the game when you're playing financial market limbo.

For more Howard Marks I highly recommend you read his excellent book, "The Most Important Thing"