* Successful investing is about owning businesses and reaping the huge rewards provided by the dividends and earnings growth of our nation’s—and, for that matter, the world’s—corporations. The higher the level of their investment activity, the greater the cost of financial intermediation and taxes, the less the net return that shareholders—as a group, the owners of our businesses—receive. The lower the costs that investors as a group incur, the higher the rewards that they reap. So to enjoy the winning returns generated by businesses over the long term, the intelligent investor will reduce to the bare-bones minimum the costs of financial intermediation.
* Our system of financial intermediation has created enormous fortunes for those who manage other people’s money. Their self-interest will not soon change. But as an investor, you must look after your self-interest. Only by facing the obvious realities of investing can an intelligent investor succeed.
* In the investment field, time doesn’t heal all wounds. It makes them worse. Where returns are concerned, time is your friend. But where costs are concerned, time is your enemy.
* With each passing year, the reality is increasingly clear: relative returns of mutual funds are random. Yes, there are rare cases where skill seems to be involved, but it would require decades to determine how much of a fund’s success can be attributed to luck, and how much attributed to skill.
* While I can’t assure you that traditional index investing is the best strategy ever devised, I can assure you that the number of strategies that are worse is infinite.
* I urge you not to be tempted by the siren song of paradigms that promise the accumulation of wealth that are far beyond the rewards of the traditional index fund. Don’t forget the prophetic warning of Carl von Clausewitz, military theorist and Prussian general of the early nineteenth century: “The greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.”
* No matter what happens, stick to your program. Think long term. Patience and consistency are the most valuable assets for the intelligent investor.
* Whatever asset allocation strategy you decide is best for you, you absolutely must take into account the role of Social Security—a major source of income for most retirees—as you age. When determining their asset allocations, most investors need to take Social Security into consideration as a bond-like asset.
* The way to wealth, I repeat one final time, is not only to capitalize on the magic of long-term compounding of returns, but to avoid the tyranny of long-term compounding of costs. Avoid the high-cost, high-turnover, opportunistic marketing modalities that characterize today’s financial services system. While the interests of Wall Street’s businesses are well served by the aphorism “Don’t just stand there—do something!,” the interests of Main Street’s investors are well served by an approach that is its diametrical opposite: “Don’t do something—just stand there!”
One of the most consuming uses of our time, in fact, has been accumulating information to help us make forecasts of all those things we think we have to predict. Where’s the evidenced that it works? I’ve been looking for it. Really. Here are my conclusions: Confidence in a forecast rises with the amount of information that goes into it. But the accuracy of the forecast stays the same. And when it comes to forecasting—as opposed to doing something—a lot of expertise is no better than a little expertise. And may even be worse. The consolation prize is pretty consoling, actually. It’s that you can be a successful investor without being a perpetual forecaster.
We have security analysts. We get research reports from brokers. We get forecasts about the economy, interest rates, the stock market. We process that information and act on the basis of it. For all of that to make any sense, we all have to believe we can generate information which is unknown to the market as a whole.
There is an approach which is simpler and probably stands a better chance of working. Spend your time measuring value instead of generating information. Don’t forecast. Buy what is cheap today. Let other people deal with the odds against predicting the future.
You don’t need to be smarter than others to outperform them if you can out-position them.
Anyone looks like a genius when they’re in a good position, and even the smartest person looks like an idiot when they’re in a bad one. When circumstances change, the person with low leverage and cash in the bank has many ways to play their hand and come out on top. On the other hand, the person with high leverage and no cash buffer has few.
Time is the friend of someone properly positioned and the enemy of someone poorly positioned.
Warren Buffett, writing in his 2013 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders:
Most investors, of course, have not made the study of business prospects a priority in their lives. If wise, they will conclude that they do not know enough about specific businesses to predict their future earning power.
I have good news for these non-professionals: The typical investor doesn’t need this skill. In aggregate, American business has done wonderfully over time and will continue to do so (though, most assuredly, in unpredictable fits and starts). In the 20th Century, the Dow Jones Industrial index advanced from 66 to 11,497, paying a rising stream of dividends to boot. The 21st Century will witness further gains, almost certain to be substantial. The goal of the non-professional should not be to pick winners – neither he nor his “helpers” can do that – but should rather be to own a cross-section of businesses that in aggregate are bound to do well. A low-cost S&P 500 index fund will achieve this goal.
That’s the “what” of investing for the non-professional. The “when” is also important. The main danger is that the timid or beginning investor will enter the market at a time of extreme exuberance and then become disillusioned when paper losses occur. (Remember the late Barton Biggs’ observation: “A bull market is like sex. It feels best just before it ends.”) The antidote to that kind of mistiming is for an investor to accumulate shares over a long period and never to sell when the news is bad and stocks are well off their highs. Following those rules, the “know-nothing” investor who both diversifies and keeps his costs minimal is virtually certain to get satisfactory results. Indeed, the unsophisticated investor who is realistic about his shortcomings is likely to obtain better long-term results than the knowledgeable professional who is blind to even a single weakness.
Jason Alan Jankovsky, writing in Time Compression Trading:
J. P. Morgan tells the story of how he would get his shoes shined every Wednesday at the same shop around the corner from his oﬃce. One day the shoe shine attendant asked him if he and his friends could buy some stock through Morgan’s brokerage. The three friends had about $40—a lot of money in 1929. Morgan politely refused, hurried back to his oﬃce, and ordered that his company was not to have a single share of stock on its books by the end of the day. Morgan simply asked, “If the shoe shine boys are buying stocks, who else is left?” Of course, the 1929 stock market crash was only a few days away, and Morgan looked like a genius. He was not a genius; he noted that the order ﬂow was likely running out on the buy side. It wasn’t his army of analysts that showed him that. It was a public investor.
Studying history can feel like intellectual candy that offers no practical use to investors who are paid to foresee the future. But once you accept how fragile our assumptions of the future are, you realize that forecasts are the real fluff and history is where the meat is.
Accepting that forecasts have little use doesn’t mean you become a blind fatalist. When you pay more attention to history than forecasts you pick up on the patterns that guide how people respond to unforeseen events, which – given how stable behavior is over time – is the next best thing to knowing what will happen next.
Forecasts rely on knowing when something will occur. Expectations are an acknowledgment of what’s likely to occur without professing insight into when it will happen.
Expectations are healthier than forecasts because they provide a vision of the future stripped of all false precision. If you know a recession will occur at some point, you won’t be that surprised whenever it arrives – which is a huge benefit. But if you assume you know exactly when it will occur you’ll be tempted into all kinds of dangerous behavior, leveraged with overconfidence. And you’ll be shocked when time passes and what you thought would occur hasn’t happened (yet).
Warren Buffett, writing in his 1987 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders:
Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success. He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his.
Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market’s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him.
Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you.
But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don’t belong in the game. As they say in poker, “If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”
Ben’s Mr. Market allegory may seem out-of-date in today’s investment world, in which most professionals and academicians talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas. Their interest in such matters is understandable, since techniques shrouded in mystery clearly have value to the purveyor of investment advice. After all, what witch doctor has ever achieved fame and fortune by simply advising “Take two aspirins?”
The value of market esoterica to the consumer of investment advice is a different story. In my opinion, investment success will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets. Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the marketplace. In my own efforts to stay insulated, I have found it highly useful to keep Ben’s Mr. Market concept firmly in mind.