In February 2000, a financial advisor named Bob Markman wrote an article that got a huge amount of attention online. Called “A Whole Lot of Bull*#%!” (that’s how the original was spelt) and published by Worth magazine, the article attacked the idea of diversification, arguing that any money put into currently underperforming investments was money wasted. Internet and other technology stocks had been so hot for so long that nothing else was worth owning, Markman argued. He was far from alone in saying that.
Markman and I exchanged long emails and even longer letters (that’s how people communicated in those Neolithic days), but the “debate” boiled down to one point: Can the typical investor predict the future with precision, or not? Markman insisted the answer was yes. I felt then, as I still do, that the answer was no.
In Markman’s defence, there is a case to be made that if you have inside knowledge or superior analytical ability, then you should bet most or all of your money to capitalize on it. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have long argued exactly that. If you are as analytically brilliant as Buffett or Munger, diversification will lower your returns. The rest of us, however, should have much less courage about our convictions. And inside knowledge or superior analytical ability are best applied to individual securities, not to broad market views.
Big gains can be hard to find in the financial markets. Nowadays, though, they seem to be everywhere — and that could change how you feel about taking risks.
As of Nov. 16, the S&P 500 is up 359% since the bull market began March 9, 2009, counting dividends, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. This year alone through Nov. 16, Alphabet (the parent company of Google) has returned 32%, Amazon.com 52%, Apple 50% and Facebook 56%, including dividends. Bitcoin, the digital currency, has gained more than 700% so far this year.
Against that backdrop, even what investors used to regard as a generous annual gain — say, 10% — starts to feel paltry. New research into a mental process called “contrast effects” shows how that works and how it can alter your behavior.
Finance professors Samuel Hartzmark of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Kelly Shue of Yale University’s School of Management analyzed nearly 76,000 earnings announcements from 1984 through 2013 in which companies earned either more or less than investors were expecting.
One of our favorite investors at The Acquirer’s Multiple – Stock Screener is Bill Miller.
Miller served as the Chairman and Chief Investment Officer of Legg Mason Capital Management and is remembered for beating the S&P 500 Index for 15 straight years when he ran the Legg Mason Value Trust.
One of the best resources for investors is the Legg Mason Shareholder Letters. One of the best letters ever written by Miller was his Q4 2006 letter in which he discussed the end of his 15 year ‘winning streak’ and how too many investors miss the most important aspect of investing by focusing on value or growth. Miller writes, “The question is not growth or value, but where is the best value?” It’s a must-read for all investors.
Here’s an excerpt from that letter:
Calendar year 2006 was the first year since I took over sole management of the Legg Mason Value Trust in the late fall of 1990 that the Fund trailed the return of the S&P 500. Those 15 consecutive years of outperformance led to a lot of publicity, commentary, and questions about “the streak,” with comparisons being made to Cal Ripken’s consecutive games played streak, or Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, or Greg Maddux’s 17 consecutive years with 15 or more wins, among others. Now that it is over, I thought shareholders might be interested in a few reflections on it, and on what significance, if any, it has.
The stock market got interesting again this week. Volatility is back after having gone missing for the past 18 months or so.I saw the following words spewed across the financial media this week: turbulence, fear, pain, panic, distress, agony. It’s still a little early for all of that. As of the close on Thursday, the S&P 500 is a little over 10% from its all-time highs.But try telling that to your emotions when you’re witnessing a decent percentage of your savings evaporate over the course of a little more than a week. The pain we feel from losses dwarfs the pleasure we feel from gains.
Because of the havoc they can wreak on our portfolios, investment professionals and advisors often instruct their clients to ignore their emotions during times like this.
Smead Capital Management letter to investors titled,”Risk Is Not High Math.”
Long term success in common stock ownership is much more about patience and discipline than it is about mathematics. There is no better arena for discussing this truism than in how investors measure risk. It is the opinion of our firm that measuring a portfolio’s variability to an index is ridiculous, because it is impossible to beat the index without variability.
We believe that how you measure risk is at the heart of how well you do as a long-duration owner of better than average quality companies. In a recent interview, Warren Buffett explained that pension and other perpetuity investors are literally dooming themselves by owning bond investments that are guaranteed to produce a return well below the obligations they hope to meet.
Buffett defines investing as postponing the use of purchasing power today to have more purchasing power in the future. For that reason, we see the risk in common stock ownership as a combination of three things; What other liquid asset classes can produce during the same time period, how the stock market does during the time period, and how well your selections do in comparison to those options. Why would professional investors mute long-term returns in a guaranteed way? The answer comes from how you define risk.
It’s easy to understand how there might be a pattern in the market that shows we have an edge or a reason to put on a trade. Maybe some combination of factors or patterns shows us that a market is more likely to go up over a certain time period, so we buy it. That’s pretty easy to understand, and it’s how most people think about trading.
There is another way to think about patterns, and I think this is more powerful. We can take a pattern, and then think several steps ahead. Through much the same process a beginning chess player might go through, in which he thinks “ok I move here and then maybe he moves here… and when he moves there I’ll do this… but wait… if he does this instead, then I would do this…” We can play a similar game with the market, looking at how prices and patterns are developing, and thinking a few steps ahead. Take a look at the chart below, which shows the S&P 500 futures a few days after a sharp selloff. I’ve also highlighted two possible scenarios, in light orange and blue, that might have played out. Here’s the chart:
Warren Buffett is recognized as the greatest investor of all-time because of his discipline and conservative approach to investing.
Instead of focusing on the short term, Warren Buffett focuses on the long term.He also has a low appetite for risk, buying companies that active traders would find boring beyond all belief.
Buffett once described his investment style as, “I’m 85% Benjamin Graham.” (Benjamin Graham is known as the godfather of value investing. His book, The Intelligent Investor, is respected as a classic on Wall Street.)
Just look at Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRKA) stock price appreciation over the past 20 years. And yes, you are reading that correctly, the stock currently trades for over $260,000… per share.
Berkshire currently holds a market cap of approximately $430 billion, making Warren Buffett the third richest person on the planet.