My Most Recent Thoughts
The Key to Winning is to Play the Right Game
Imagine you decide, in an effort to improve your overall health and wellness, that it is time to start running. You go out on some training runs and then decide to join a local 5k. You run this first race in 30 minutes flat. How do you decide if that is good or not? Did that meet your expectations? How did you place according to your age group? What if you go out to the next race and your time is 31 minutes? Is that good? Maybe that second race included a lot more hills and the average time of all runners was 33 minutes. How does that change the perception of how you did?
In investing, most people attribute winning to whether or not you beat ‘the market’. If ‘the market’ returned 10%, a 12% gain is considered a win, and an 8% gain is considered a loss. But what does ‘the market’ consist of?
The returns of ‘the market’ can be thought of as just the average return of all the market participants. This includes the largest hedge funds, the ‘mom and pop’ investors in retirement, university endowments, and pension plans. Each of these groups have different goals and objectives for their investment portfolios. These billions of dollars buying and selling stocks and bonds is what determines the market returns. So, if the market return is the average of all of them, the ones who perform better than the market must be equal in magnitude to those that underperform.
A great podcast I listen to with some regularity is Invest Like the Best hosted by Patrick O’Shaughnessy. Patrick is the CEO of O’Shaughnessy Asset Management and an astute market observer. One thing he likes to say is that he sometimes wishes he called the podcast “This is who you are up against” because he interviews some of the smartest people in the world of investing. And, if you are trying to beat the market, but the market consists of these super-geniuses, how does the average investor think they will get an edge? This is the poker table analogy.
A Crazy Game of Poker
If 10 people sit around a poker table, the worst players will essentially subsidize the really good players. In order for someone to win, someone has to lose. The average players can break even and trade a few chips amongst themselves and have a good time. The ‘market’ in the case of the poker table is measured as the net gain in chips at the poker table. Since no one is creating chips and none are getting added to the table, the market performance is flat, or 0.00%. So, if anyone is going to gain chips, they need to be taking from other people at the table.
If you wanted to make money at poker and you saw some of the best poker players in the world, Daniel Negranu, Phil Ivey, and Annie Duke, sitting at a table, you would likely go look for another table. It would be very hard for you to win that game.
This analogy is used often in investing. The really great investors like Warren Buffett, Ray Dalio, and David Tepper, do better at the expense of the suckers at the table - the ‘mom and pop’ investors who don’t know any better.
What Game are You Really Playing?
Let’s go back to the running analogy. It is a lot less clear what one considers winning in running. My first race, I made it across the finish line without dying – that was a win in my book. Just like in the investing world, each of the runners lined up at the starting line have different goals and objectives for the race. The crazy thin and wiry guys and gals at the front may, in fact, be looking to beat everyone else. Some people at the back of the pack are just looking to get a decent workout in. Some runners may want to win their age division, and others want to set a new PR. Winning represents different things to each of them.
In investing it should work the same way. The reality is that most people shouldn’t worry about beating the market. Instead, winning in investing should be dependent on your personal and financial goals. Are your odds of retiring with the lifestyle you want greater today than they were yesterday? If so, the movement of the market (and thereby, the other market participants) shouldn’t worry you at all.
Financial securities, like stocks and bonds, should be viewed as tools to reach financial goals. Some tools add capital appreciation, some provide income, and others act as counterweights to help smooth results (diversification). The performance of a broad-based market index should not determine whether or not the assembled tools perform the task they are assigned.
Now I know what some of the investment folks out there will say.
“Keith, we all know about adjusting the allocation of investments depending on someone’s risk profile, but don’t you still measure how the stocks do against the stock market, and how the bonds do against the bond market? This talk of not caring about beating the market sounds like a cop-out!”
To which I reply,
“Of course, I look at performance against a market index for client portfolios all the time. But guess what – they don’t always beat the market, and I am perfectly fine with that. I am saying that performance against the market index should not be the determinant of winning or losing.”
Maximizing the probability of meeting financial goals should be the primary indicator of success for most people. This requires a keen awareness of risk and being able to asses what could happen to your investments. If avoiding certain risks means that your return is less than the market, you should be ok with that. In fact, chasing market beating returns is what gets many people into trouble.
Keys to Winning the Game
How should one go about winning the investment game?
- Identify what it is you are trying to accomplish with a given pool of assets.
- Assemble an appropriate set of tools (growth stocks, income stocks, bonds, etc…) to best achieve that goal.
- Mark progress towards that goal including the probability of success and the probability of failure. This includes a keen understanding of risk of loss.
- Realize that assembling the right tools to best achieve your goal may mean that your performance differs from that of a market benchmark.
This is the part where you say “Keith, that’s a real great theory you have there but what is the practical application.”
And then, before I go any further I feel compelled to reiterate the disclaimer (Nothing in this post should be construed as financial advice. Before making an investment in any financial security, please consult your financial advisor. If that person happens to me, I look forward to hearing from you. Nothing in this post is design to treat, cure, or prevent any diseases….wait, I’m getting off track…)
The longer your time horizon, the more money you should have allocated to higher risk growth stocks. For shorter time horizons you should be using less risky and more income generating securities.
Remember that instead of trying to beat the market, it often makes sense to just be the market in the form of investing in low cost passive index funds. These funds just give you the average return of all the market participants listed above and do so at a very low cost. Most people lose the investment game because they blow themselves up in search of higher returns.
When looking at risk, just remember that the stock market went down 50%, from top to bottom, during the financial crisis. You can use that as a very quick rule of thumb to stress test your portfolio. If 80% of your portfolio is in stocks, and those stocks can decline by 50%, your portfolio would take a hit of 40%. Would your financial goals still be on track after that? If you are 30 and starting to save for retirement, the answer is probably yes. If you are 60 and looking at retiring soon, the answer will likely be no. This is the difference between winning and losing.
Looking for advice is a great strategy if you are not willing or able to manage investments on your own. A great financial advisor will help you identify your goals and make sure your investments are on track to meet them. Just remember that paying over 1% of the assets to be managed is too high. Paying commissions to advisors is a terrible arrangement. Finally, make sure that the advisor is willing to act as a fiduciary (they are willing to hold themselves legally responsible to act in your best interest).
While I love Patrick O’Shaugnessy’s work and his podcast, the “this is who you’re up against” message is not applicable to most investors, (I do still highly recommend people tune in.) You can still achieve success no matter what algorithms and models the next generation of super-investors are using. The world of investing is much more like a 5k than a game of poker. You should not worry about what other investors are doing. You should care about your own results and focus on achieving your goals.
A friend of mine holds a handful of large, well-known stocks that pay good dividends. He says he doesn’t look at the price fluctuation except for when that price goes down. If they pay the same dollar amount of dividends that means their dividend yields go higher so he may buy more. All he is interested in is the income stream. Do you think he cares what the market does? He is winning if the income keeps rolling in and supports his growing book collection.
When it comes to investing winning is different for everyone. As long as you set a clear goal, you can win the game of investing no matter what anyone else is doing.
Until next time….
“Winning is like shaving - you do it every day or you wind up looking like a bum.” Jack Kemp
and of course "Winning, duh." Charlie SheenContinue Reading
What’s Wrong with Warren Buffett?
Its that time of year again when the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway releases his famous letter to shareholders. It always comes out to great fanfare, as most of the investment world holds him up on a pedestal. He is unique in that he is not only considered the greatest investor of our age, but he also has a reputation for being a paragon of sound, ethical business practice. He is a billionaire, finance guy who has gained the trust of the people! However, not everyone is buying what Warren is selling. There is small contingent of people who claim to see through his charming, folksy, good ole grand-dad veneer and see … something else… a shark or a hypocrite at least. Or, perhaps they just see someone who has carefully crafted a wholesome image in order to work the system unadulterated.
I do not agree with the arguments against Warren Buffett. There is nothing that I’ve come across in all the literature from and about him to suggest that he is anything other than what we see – one the most transparent and sincere business leaders today.
It was the ‘sincere’ comment that drove the most derision. The word’s use was intentional in that I believe his track record over 50 years of annual letters and interviews reveals someone who has been very upfront with his strategy, wins, and even his mistakes. I mentioned that it was difficult to find any examples of him not acting in a manner consistent with his message. “Au contraire!” came the replies. So, let us examine the most common exhibits laid out by the Buffett critics.
“He argues that he should pay more tax, but takes advantage of capital gains tax and donations to private foundations to reduce his own tax burden. If he thinks billionaires should pay more tax, why doesn’t he just write a check?”
This is a popular criticism; however, I don’t think the logic holds up. The nation’s tax revenue is in the neighborhood of $3.3 Trillion. Even if he made a very large gift of a couple billion dollars it would not move the needle. Another 500 of his billionaire friends all chipping in a little more just might.
And, Warren did offer to cut a check. He said he would match any gift from any republican in congress (and triple the gift of anything from his pal Mitch McConnell). There was only one such gift made, and Warren made good on his offer. (link here). The larger point though, is that he is making a recommendation on the tax system to help fix a problem. It is not hypocritical to play by the rules of the game, while at the same time suggesting that maybe the rules should be changed.
“He calls derivatives ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ but he uses them in his own portfolio.”
Let’s examine the single most egregious case that people like to point out. In 2008, Warren Buffett sold long-term ‘naked put’ options against many of the major stock indexes of the world. Options are derivatives in that they ‘derive’ their value from the value of another asset, in this case, the global stock markets. Buyers of put options are betting that the value of the underlying asset goes down. So for people and institutions who have imbedded interests in stock, buying put options is a form of insurance. Because, if your stocks go down, your put options will go up.
Berkshire Hathaway happens to be one of the largest sellers of insurance in the world. Their reinsurance business (essentially insuring insurance or the things other insurers won’t touch) is consistently profitable because of their ability to accurately price risk. The selling of naked puts is directly in their wheel-house. Warren explained it all in his 2008 letter to shareholders. I recommend you go back and read the entire report because, like all of his letters, it is a great lesson in finance, but here is the important bit.
Considering the ruin I’ve pictured, you may wonder why Berkshire is a party to 251 derivatives contracts (other than those used for operational purposes at MidAmerican and the few left over at Gen Re). The answer is simple: I believe each contract we own was mispriced at inception, sometimes dramatically so. I both initiated these positions and monitor them, a set of responsibilities consistent with my belief that the CEO of any large financial organization must be the Chief Risk Officer as well. If we lose money on our derivatives, it will be my fault.
So, the world’s greatest investor and CEO of the one of the world’s largest and best insurance companies in the world, sells insurance-like put contracts and he is a hypocrite? Finding value and pricing risk is what he does. He criticizes the improper use of these instruments, and then takes the reader to school by explaining the correct use with full accounting, explanation, and accountability. Again, hard for me to see the logic of this criticism.
“He tells ‘mom & pop’ investors to buy index funds. He hates hedge funds, but has hedge fund managers running his investments. Surely, this makes him a raging hypocrite!”
This is a ridiculous argument. He is a professional investor, not ‘mom and pop’. To suggest that he should align his investments with the advice he gives to novices, or vice-versa, is ludicrous. They are not in the same realm of circumstance or sophistication.
His main beef with hedge-funds is that the fees over time will eat into returns. He has expressed a dislike for Wall Street types due “more money has been made on Wall Street through salesmanship than through any investment insight.” To say that it’s hard for retail investors to find honest, good, and cost-effective investment options should not be controversial. To use his expertise to identify skilled investment managers, or employ complex strategies should not be either.
I know there are other criticisms but these are the most popular. This post will paint me as cheerleading sycophant but I’m just calling it how I see it. Warren Buffett is unique in achieving the level of success he has and doing so with such a sterling ethical record. Any accusation of ulterior motives or self-dealing just is not borne out by the evidence. Maybe he is who we think he is. The kind old folk hero of investing.
So why the haters? The Dallas Cowboys are my least favorite team in the NFL (next to the GreenBay Packers anyway). I grew up in the 90’s when they were the dominant force in the league. People would come to school with their Dallas Cowboy Starter Jackets on and rave about making another run at the SuperBowl. I would say “I hate the Cowboys. They aren’t even that good.” Well my opinion was not borne out by the facts. They were, in reality, that good. They just won a lot. Warren Buffett has a bit of the Cowboys effect, or the Yankees if you prefer. There will always be a group that wants to see the tower crumble.
To use another sports metaphor, Warren Buffett has received a Michael Jordan effect. Instead of getting foul calls going his way, he gets favorable deal prospects. Banks that were struggling in the aftermath of the financial crisis, especially wanted to get an investment from Warren. It was a great sign of strength to have the Omaha seal of approval. So, of course, they would sweeten the pot. And he has a fiduciary obligation to his shareholders to take advantage of that. If it were anyone else it would be classified as a competitive advantage, so why should he turn away those deals? There was nothing underhanded about any of them.
The bottom line is that Warren Buffett will go down in history with the reputation as one of the most astute, transparent, and ethical business leaders of our country. It’s a reputation that any careful examination of the evidence suggests is deserved.
Well I hope I have exhausted everyone enough on this topic. Now go read the latest letter to shareholders. I know this post was likely higher on the priority list, and I appreciate that!
Until Next Time,
“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” - Warren BuffettContinue Reading
The 5 Best Books I Read in 2017
Last year was a great year for reading. Even if I fell short of my goal for number of books read, the quality of books was excellent and a few of them were pretty massive in length so I think it evens out. I am still working on assessing my resolutions from last year and forming new ones for 2018, but I think one adjustment I am going to make is to not have a goal for reading a specific number of books, but instead just work on habit of reading and variety. For starters I want to read more fiction in 2018. I sometimes get too over-obsessed with reading non-fiction to gain knowledge that I forget that fiction can offer insights into the human condition just as deep, if not deeper, than any non-fiction effort. I am sure there will be more to come on that.
Without further delay, here are the 5 best books I read last year.
This book is a follow up to his first book, Influence. For the unfamiliar, I highly recommend you read Influence first, and then read this one.
While Influence covers broadly the tactics persuasive people use to gain compliance - “weapons of influence” as they are referred to - this book covers setting the stage to help prepare your intended audience to receive a message. One of the first examples Dr. Cialdini gives is someone trying to get people to agree to give their email address. Predictably, in most situations compliance with this request is very low. Only 33% of people stopped agreed to give this information. However, once the experimenter began asking “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?” the rate jumped to 77.5%. Apparently, by getting people to think “I suppose I am a pretty adventurous person” they were then more willing to agree to go out on a limb and offer up their contact information.
Great Quote: “The basic idea of pre-suasion is that by guiding preliminary attention strategically, it is possible for a communicator to move recipients into agreement with a message before they experience it.”
This book is a no-brainer for anyone who is a fan of Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Blindside, The Big Short) or familiar with the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Lewis again shows off why he is a master at story-telling by combining intimate portraits of these men with the lessons their insights provided to the world of social psychology. The book illustrates how their work paved the way for what has become known as the field of behavioral economics.
Great Quote: “With the passage of time, the consequences of any event accumulated and left more to undo. And the more there is to undo, the less likely the mind is to even try. This was perhaps one way time heals wounds, by making them feel less avoidable.”
This was a fascinating study on the way everything changes as size changes. The book’s 2nd chapter opens with why Godzilla would be a physically impossible manifestation. There was also a terrifying anecdote about how veterinarians not familiar with the laws of scaling gave an elephant a lethal overdose of LSD.
While it is primarily rooted in physics, the book has relevant application to the worlds of business, investing, biology, sociology, and urban planning. Why is 4 a magic number? How many gas stations does it take to sustain a city of 2,000 people compared to a city of 200,000? What is the difference in heart rate between a mouse and an elephant? You have no doubt heard about a business refer to ‘economies of scale’ but this book will change your perception of what that really means.
Great quote: “So what was irrelevant at one scale can become dominant at another. The challenge at every level of observation is to abstract the important variables that determine the dominant behavior of the system.”
I’m really surprised I had known more about Edward Thorp before reading this book. He definitely deserves a spot in the annals of investment history. From beating blackjack, to inventing the first wearable computer to beat roulette, to creating one of the first quant hedge funds, the book goes through Thorp’s thought process on how he approached each of these problems.
Great quote: “For most academic theorists, (the 1987 crash) was as close to impossible as anything can be. It was as though the sun suddenly winked out or the earth stopped spinning. They described stock prices using a distribution of probabilities with the esoteric name lognormal. This did a good job of fitting historical price changes that ranged from small to rather large, but greatly underestimated the likelihood of very large changes.”
This massive tome covers the life and legacy of John D. Rockefeller. I did not know much about him outside of what I knew from history class, saw on the History channel, or read in random articles or other sources. The size and scope of Standard Oil was well known, along with the legacy of his Rockefeller foundation, but there were so many anecdotes and lessons starting with how he approached getting a job. “I was working every day at my business – the business of looking for work. I put in my full time at this every day.”
Going into his late 20’s and early 30’s he was already one of the most ice-cold operators in business and was pushing competitors out of business and buying up their assets. The dichotomy of his life between the ruthless oil baron, and the pious, churchgoing family man was fascinating to read about. This book is often featured on the reading lists of great executives, and for great reason. There are many lessons to learn from this Titan of American business.
Great Quote: “He was golfing at Pocantico with Father J.P Lennon from the Tarrytown Catholic church when he learned of the decision (of the court’s anti-trust ruling against Standard Oil) and he did not seem particularly perturbed. ‘Father Lennon’ he asked, ‘have you some money?’ The priest said no, then asked why. ‘Buy Standard Oil,’ Rockefeller said – which turned out to be sound advice.”
The Most Important Thing by Howard Marks – This book definitely deserves a place in the top five of the year but I figured a lot of serious investment people have already read it. It is an absolute staple in the investment curriculum and if you have not read, you should move it up the list.
1776 by David McCullough – it was amazing to me to find out how close that rag-tag band of rebels were to annihilation and this little experiment called the United States was so close to ending before it began. An engrossing and near unbelievable narrative, well told.
Deep Thinking by Garry Kasperov – This was a really interesting book about artificial intelligence from the man who lost to IBM’s Deep Blue chess machine. One interesting insight was the “sacrificing the queen problem”. It appeared that many chess machines upon studying thousands of chess matches had trouble separating cause and effect. Since sacrificing the queen was such a rare move for chess masters, and was only done when there was a huge advantage to do so, computers would interpret that as sacrificing the queen is always a brilliant move.
On Deck for 2018
I am still deep in the middle of House of Morgan, another Chernow epic. After that, I plan to continue my gilded age education a little further with The Tycoons by Charles Morris for a broader picture of the era, and Money Lords by Matthew Josephson. My next deep dive is to go through some of the classic economic texts. I want to read Wealth of Nations, Road to Serfdom, and General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money but will add in a couple of other books that I had been meaning to get to in between. I still have Drive by Daniel Pink and I’m also dying to read Behave by Robert Sopolsky. That one may move up the queue since it’s been staring at me from the shelf for the last six months.
A friend of mine also recommended Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann so I will try and read that this year as well.
In regards to reading more fiction as mentioned above, I did recently pick up The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu after seeing and hearing multiple recommendations for that book. It is a Chinese, science fiction novel and I am excited to check it out.
As always, plans might change. I called a few audibles in 2017 on the reading list and I’ve learned that that’s ok. The important thing is to just read, whatever it is. I have come to accept my tilts in interest and lean with them instead of against them.
Let me know the best books you read last year. What is on your bookshelf for this year? I’m always happy to hear about more ideas.
Until next time…. “The more that you read, the more things you’ll know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. SuessContinue Reading
Weekend Reading Links 12/08/17
It’s been a busy but productive and incredibly exciting last few weeks. I recently started a new position which has been excellent. I joined the trust department of a very highly respected community bank to help build out the investment process and grow the overall wealth management offering. As I try to keep my daily work separate from the content I keep here, I won’t go into any further detail, but if you have any questions, I will be happy to talk more about it.
Plus, we have all the traditional December business. The kids have their Christmas programs and concerts, holiday parties, and trying to find time to get some shopping done. We ended up decorating the house just last night.
The financial world seems to be focused on just two things these days - Bitcoin and tax legislation. 2018 should be a very interesting year. While I am hopeful that December can take its time passing – I love the holiday season – I do look forward to what the future has in store. Let’s see what was interesting to read the last couple weeks!
The first is in an interesting post on Medium which lays out the Bitcoin timeline. It goes from founding and development and quickly goes into speculation but its very interesting – The Three Economic Eras of Bitcoin
If you are still unsure of the difference between Bitcoin and blockchain, this is a good primer from MIT – Blockchain Explained
This is very critical take on the whole Bitcoin experiment from Preston Byrne (@prestonjbyrne). While I don’t agree with all the parallels made, it is an interesting take and something any crypto fan should read and think about - Introducing the Nakamoto Scheme
If you are looking for some good books, check out these lists.
This article from CNBC asks the question I have been wrestling with for over a year now – Lack of Wage Growth Remains the Economy’s Greatest Mystery
Farming is actually growing as a profession for the first time in a very long time, as this article from the Washington Post points out. – A Growing Number of Young Americans are Leaving Desk Jobs to Farm
Lawrence Hamtil (@lhamtil) is one of the best at investing myth busting. Here he gets into what has become a pervasive argument about a company’s capital allocation – The Annoying Capex vs Buybacks Narrative
I wrote a post a while ago in direct response to some of the stock buyback critics – Why Stock Buybacks are Good for the Market and the Economy
Other Interesting Tid-Bits
Do you want to move to space? You could become a citizen of Asgardia. – Asgardia Satellite Launch
Have you ever wondered which general in history was the greatest battlefield tactician? Ethan Arsht (@ethanarcht) has your back. He took some baseball statistical methodology and applied it to battlefield prowess. Now you can see every general’s WAR ranking. – Napoleon was the best general ever and the math proves it
Are you having trouble getting into the holiday spirit? Well as Buddy the Elf says, the best way to spread Christmas cheer, is singing loud for all to hear. Let DMX start things off with his version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
That’s all this week. Let me know if you’ve read anything interesting lately!
Weekend Reading Links 11/17/17
Happy weekend and welcome to a late edition of the reading links. It was an exceptional week this week with a lot going on. I spent a lot of time grading finals and attending kid events which did not leave much room for reading and writing. There are some other exciting developments under works as well, but those will be discussed over the next few weeks. So stay tuned and here are the stories that got my attention this week!
One of my very first investing idols was David Swenson, the CIO of the Yale endowment and author of the single greatest investment book I’ve ever read (yeah, I said it) Pioneering Portfolio Management. He is voicing his concern about this market being potentially over heated. – Yale’s Swenson Says Low Market Volatility Profoundly Troubling
Have you heard the news out of Africa? – Link from Reuters – Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Coup Chief Meet with Smiles and Handshakes
It’s been a bad week for oil companies. First up, the world’s largest single pot of investible money on the planet is mulling the idea of completely divesting from fossil fuels. – Norway Idea to Exit Oil Stocks is ‘Shot Heard Around the World’
Then of course, the event TransCanada definitely did not want to hear. The opponents of Keystone XL are jumping all over this. – Keystone Oil Pipeline Leaks in South Dakota as Nebraska Weighs XL
This is an excellent blog post from Nick Maggulli (@DollarsAndData) about how easy overconfidence can affect you, including a graphic that every investor needs to observe and acknowledge throughout their career. The lesson is – the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. – A Little Knowledge is Dangerous
Elon and Tesla had a big announcement this past week. Some people were not completely enthusiastic about it. - Elon Musk Breathlessly Introduces Two New Products That He Will Inevitably Fail to Produce
That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading and let me know what you think