How Not to be a Terrible Investor

February 27, 2014

Morgan Housel at Motley Fool has a wonderful article on how investors can learn from failure.  He sets the tone with a few different quotes and anecdotes that point out that a lot of being a success is just avoiding really dumb mistakes.

At a conference years ago, a young teen asked Charlie Munger how to succeed in life. “Don’t do cocaine, don’t race trains to the track, and avoid all AIDS situations,” Munger said. Which is to say: Success is less about making great decisions and more about avoiding really bad ones.

People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.    Nassim Taleb

I’ve added the emphasis, but Mr. Housel makes a good point.  Learning from failure is equally important as learning from success.  In fact, he argues it may be more important.

If it were up to me, I would replace every book called How to Invest Like Warren Buffett with a one called How to Not Invest Like Lehman Brothers, Long-Term Capital Management, and Jesse Livermore. There are so many lessons to learn from these failed investors about situations most of us will face, like how quickly debt can ruin you. I’m a fan of learning from Buffett, but the truth is most of us can’t devote as much time to investing as he can. The biggest risk you face as an investor isn’t that you’ll fail to be Warren Buffett; it’s that you’ll end up as Lehman Brothers.

But there’s no rule that says you have to learn by failing yourself. It is far better to learn vicariously from other people’s mistakes than suffer through them on your own.

That’s his thesis in a nutshell.  He offers three tidbits from his study of investing failures.  I’ve quoted him in full here because I think his context is important (and the writing is really good).

1. The overwhelming majority of financial problems are caused by debt, impatience, and insecurity. People want to fit in and impress other people, and they want it right now. So they borrow money to live a lifestyle they can’t afford. Then they hit the inevitable speed bump, and they find themselves over their heads and out of control. That simple story sums up most financial problems in the world. Stop trying to impress people who don’t care about you anyways, spend less than you earn, and invest the rest for the long run. You’ll beat 99% of people financially.

2. Complexity kills. You can make a lot of money in finance, so the industry attracted some really brilliant people. Those brilliant people naturally tried to make finance more like their native fields of physics, math, and engineering, so finance has grown exponentially more complex in the last two decades. For most, that’s been a disservice. I think the evidence is overwhelming that simple investments like index funds and common stocks will demolish complicated ones like derivatives and leveraged ETFs. There are two big stories in the news this morning: One is about how the University of California system is losing more than $100 million on a complicated interest rate swap trade. The other is about how Warren Buffett quintupled his money buying a farm in Nebraska. Simple investments usually win.

3. So does panic. In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzalez chronicles how some people managed to survive plane crashes, getting stranded on boats, and being stuck in blizzards while their peers perished. The common denominator is simple: The survivors didn’t panic. It’s the same in investing. I’ve seen people make a lifetime of good financial decisions only to blow it all during a market panic like we saw in 2008. Any financial decision you make with an elevated heart rate is probably going to be one you’ll regret. Napoleon’s definition of a military genius was “the man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” It’s the same in investing.

I think these are really good points.  It’s true that uncontrolled leverage accompanies most real blowups.  Having patience in the investing process is indeed necessary; we’ve written about that a lot here too.  The panic, impatience, and insecurity he references are really all behavioral issues—and it just points out that having your head on straight is incredibly important to investment success.  How successful you are in your profession or how much higher math you know is immaterial.  As Adam Smith (George Goodman) wrote, “If you don’t know who you are, the stock market is an expensive place to find out.” 

Mr. Housel’s point on complexity could be a book in itself.  Successful investing just entails owning productive assets—the equity and debt of successful enterprises—acquired at a reasonable price.  Whether you own the equity directly, like Warren Buffett and his farm, or in security form is immaterial.  An enterprise can be a company—or even a country—but it’s got to be successful.

Complexity doesn’t help with this evaluation.  In fact, complexity often obscures the whole point of the exercise.

This is actually one place where I think relative strength can be very helpful in the investment process.  Relative strength is incredibly simple and relative strength is a pretty good signaling mechanism for what is successful.  Importantly, it’s also adaptive: when something is no longer successful, relative strength can signal that too.  Sears was once the king of retailing.  Upstart princes like K-Mart in its day, and Wal-Mart and Costco later, put an end to its dominance.  Once, homes were lit with candles and heated with fuel oil.  Now, electricity is much more common—but tomorrow it may be something different.  No asset is forever, not even Warren Buffett’s farmland.  When the soil is depleted, that farm will become a lead anchor too.  Systematic application of relative strength, whether it’s being used within an asset class or across asset classes, can be a very useful tool to assess long-term success of an enterprise.

Most investing problems boil down to behavioral issues.  Impatience and panic are a couple of the most costly.  Avoiding complexity is a different dimension that Mr. Housel brings up, and one that I think should be included in the discussion.  There are plenty of millionaires that have been created through owning businesses, securities, or real estate.  I can’t think of many interest rate swap millionaires (unless you count the people selling them).  Staying calm and keeping things simple might be the way to go.  And if the positive prescription doesn’t do it for you, the best way to be a good investor may be to avoid being a terrible investor!

Posted by:

The 1%

January 6, 2014

“The 1%” phrase has been used a lot to decry income inequality, but I’m using it here in an entirely different context.  I’m thinking about the 1% in relation to a recent article by Motley Fool’s Morgan Housel.  Here’s an excerpt from his article:

Building wealth over a lifetime doesn’t require a lifetime of superior skill. It requires pretty mediocre skills — basic arithmetic and a grasp of investing fundamentals — practiced consistently throughout your entire lifetime, especially during times of mania and panic.  Most of what matters as a long-term investor is how you behave during the 1% of the time everyone else is losing their cool.

That puts a little different spin on it.  Maybe your behavior during 1% of the time is how you get to be part of the 1%.  (The bold in Mr. Housel’s quotation above is mine.)

In his article, Housel demonstrates how consistency—in this case, dollar-cost averaging—beats a couple of risk avoiders who try to miss recessions.  We’ve harped on having some kind of systematic investment process here, so consistency is certainly a big part of success.

But also consider what might happen if you can capitalize on those periods of panic and add to your holdings.  Imagine that kind of program practiced consistently over a lifetime!  Warren Buffett’s article in the New York Times, “Buy American.  I Am.” from October 2008 comes to mind.  Here is a brief excerpt of Mr. Buffett’s thinking during the financial crisis:

THE financial world is a mess, both in the United States and abroad. Its problems, moreover, have been leaking into the general economy, and the leaks are now turning into a gusher. In the near term, unemployment will rise, business activity will falter and headlines will continue to be scary.

So … I’ve been buying American stocks.

If prices keep looking attractive, my non-Berkshire net worth will soon be 100 percent in United States equities.

A simple rule dictates my buying: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful. And most certainly, fear is now widespread, gripping even seasoned investors. To be sure, investors are right to be wary of highly leveraged entities or businesses in weak competitive positions. But fears regarding the long-term prosperity of the nation’s many sound companies make no sense. These businesses will indeed suffer earnings hiccups, as they always have. But most major companies will be setting new profit records 5, 10 and 20 years from now.

Let me be clear on one point: I can’t predict the short-term movements of the stock market. I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether stocks will be higher or lower a month — or a year — from now. What is likely, however, is that the market will move higher, perhaps substantially so, well before either sentiment or the economy turns up. So if you wait for the robins, spring will be over.

Gee, I wonder how that worked out for him?  It’s no mystery why Warren Buffett has $60 billion—he is as skilled a psychological arbitrageur as there is and he has been at it for a very long time.

As Mr. Housel points out, even with mediocre investing skills, just consistency can go a long way toward building wealth—and the ability to be greedy when others are fearful has the potential to compound success.

Posted by:

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s Best Advice

November 26, 2013

…talk about the best advice they have even gotten in a short piece from Fortune.  I think it clarifies the difference between a blind value investor and an investor who is looking for good companies (not coincidentally, many of those good companies have good relative strength).  Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have made a fortune implementing this advice.

Buffett: I had been oriented toward cheap securities. Charlie said that was the wrong way to look at it. I had learned it from Ben Graham, a hero of mine. [Charlie] said that the way to make really big money over time is to invest in a good business and stick to it and then maybe add more good businesses to it. That was a big, big, big change for me. I didn’t make it immediately and would lapse back. But it had a huge effect on my results. He was dead right.

Munger: I have a habit in life. I observe what works and what doesn’t and why.

I highlighted the fun parts.  Buffett started out as a Ben Graham value investor.  Then Charlie wised him up.

Valuation has its place, obviously.  All things being equal, it’s better to buy cheaply than to pay up.  But Charlie Munger had observed that good businesses tended to keep on going.  The same thing is typically true of strong stocks—and most often those are the stocks of strong businesses.

Buy strong businesses and stick with them as long as they remain strong.

Source: CNN/Money (click on image to enlarge)

Posted by:

Quote of the Week

November 4, 2013

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.—-Charlie Munger

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger think that some of their advantage is just in trying not to do anything stupid.  Indeed, it is doing stupid stuff that is usually the problem in investing.  Of course, it doesn’t seem stupid at the time—indeed, it usually seems very compelling—which is why it is difficult to recognize and stop.  I follow with my contribution to the genre.

HT: Morgan Housel and Abnormal Returns

Posted by:

Warren Buffett vs. Gold

May 9, 2012

Warren Buffett reiterated at his recent “Woodstock for Capitalists,” otherwise known as Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, that he much preferred productive assets to gold.  Charlie Munger agreed.  For the record, I’ve got nothing against productive assets.  They produce earnings and sometimes dividends and that’s nice.  However, a global tactical asset allocator should not be too eager to count out gold.

Gold has had good relative strength for much of the last decade—and as a result it has dramatically outperformed Warren Buffett.  Bespoke took up this exact issue and had this to say:

Given the fact that BRK/A does not pay a dividend, no matter how much a holder ‘fondles’ or looks at their holdings, one share of BRK/A stock purchased twelve years ago is still one share today.  Sure, you can sell it for more now than you bought it then, but the same is true of gold.  In fact, your gain on gold is considerably more than your gain would be on BRK/A.  Looking at the performance of the two assets since the start of 2000 shows that the value of gold has increased considerably more than the value of Berkshire Hathaway.  In fact, with a gain of 466% since the start of 2000, gold’s gain has been nearly four times the return of BKR/A (466% vs 120%).

Their nifty graphic follows:

Source: Bespoke   (click on image to enlarge)

Relative strength has no axe to grind.  One of the great benefits of using relative strength to drive tactical asset allocation is that it is objective and adaptive.  Relative strength does not have a philosophical bias in favor of, or against, gold.  If relative strength is high, perhaps it should be included in the portfolio.  If relative strength is low, it’s out—period.

The point of investing is not to serve our biases, but to own the best-performing assets that we can identify.

Posted by: