All returns are not created equal

In my last two blogs, I wrote about 1) measuring what matters most: after-fee, after-tax returns and 2) capital preservation: maintaining purchasing power as the prime directive of investing.

Now, I want to bring those two thoughts together with a third: all returns are not created equal. 

Just as investors place undo emphasis on 1) tax avoidance and low fees instead of actual returns, and 2) volatility and “safe” securities instead of the risk of permanent loss and after-inflation purchasing power, I believe investors also commit a third sin: 3) undo emphasis on returns earned over some arbitrary period instead of the process by which those returns were generated.

A quick example here should illustrate my point.

Suppose you were given the choice to invest for the next 10 years with two money managers: Firm C or Firm M.  Suppose, too, that you were presented with their 5 year investing records: Firm C: -6% loss over 5 years; Firm M: +6% gain over 5 years.

For most people (and for me in the past), this is an easy choice.  Over 5 years Firm M has earned a positive 6% return and Firm C has lost 6%, so go with Firm M, right?

But, wait!  How were those returns achieved?  Let’s examine each firm’s annual returns over the last 5 years:

  • $100,000 invest with Firm C
    • Year 1: -4.5%, $95,500
    • Year 2: +1.0%, $96,500
    • Year 3: +1.0%, $97,500
    • Year 4: +1.0%, $98,500
    • Year 5: -4.6%, $94,000
  • $100,000 invested in Firm M
    • Year 1: +4.5%, $104,500
    • Year 2: -1.0%, $103,500
    • Year 3: -1.0%, $102,500
    • Year 4: -1.0%, $101,500
    • Year 5: +4.4%, 106,000

See anything funny, yet?  Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have, either.  Let me explain how those returns were achieved.

As a thought experiment, I put these two investing firms against each other.  Each year, one bets $1,000 that a 6-sided die will land on 1 and get paid $4,500, and the other takes that bet (hoping the die lands on 2 through 6).  In my example, Firm M is making the bet and Firm C is taking the bet.

Now, perhaps, you’re not so sure you want to invest with Firm M!  Sounds more like gambling than investing?  Yes, precisely. 

Each year, Firm M has a 1-in-6 chance of gaining $4,500 and a 5-in-6 chance of losing $1,000.  Although Firm M’s investing record looked pretty good over the last 5 years (because the way the die just happened to roll those 5 times), you may not feel too comfortable now that you know how the return was generated. 

In fact, the next 10 years have a very high likelihood of Firm M losing 4.2% a year and Firm C gaining 4.2% a year.  That’s where the firm names came from: M is for Madoff and C is for Casino.  The odds were on the casino’s side all along, even though the record looked bad over those five years, and the odds were always against Madoff.

And, that’s the point I’d like to make.  Most investors look at an investing record and believe past is prologue.  But, the past is rarely the best judge of the future.  Instead, the right way to judge returns is by examining the method used. 

Two investing firms can have the exact same investing record, but one can generate returns by taking bad bets (and getting lucky) and the other by taking good bets.  You need to figure out which firm is taking good bets to generate satisfactory returns in the future.

This is particularly the case today.  Some firms have deceivingly weak records over the last several years because they’ve taken smart bets and the die has rolled against them.  Other firms have brilliant-looking records although they’ve taken bad bets and the die has rolled in their favor. 

Only by looking behind the curtain will you see if there is a real wizard or a blathering fake.  It may seem trivial or time-consuming, but understanding how returns are generated is much more important than the return record itself–future returns will depend on it (as Madoff so ably illustrated).

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

All returns are not created equal

Process versus results

Every few months, I seem to return to this subject because it’s so important to successful investing–there is a world of different between investment process and investment results, especially in the short term!

Results are what you get, process is how you get it. Confusing the two leads to all kinds of investment mistakes. Why?

The reason why, to over-simplify, is randomness. The world is so complex that you can’t possibly know all the variables that can impact a particular result. You may have a bad results, but a good process. Or, you may have a bad process, but get good results in the short term.

If you have the right process, but watch short term results too closely, you may give up before the big payday comes. If you have the wrong process, but get lucky and have a good result, you may continue to implement the wrong process leading to terrible long term results.

Let me give a concrete example because the subject probably seems way too abstract so far.

Suppose I make you an offer: would you pay me $200 for a one in six change of winning $1,000? I’ll roll a die, if it comes up 1 I’ll pay you $1,000, if it comes up 2-6, I keep the $200 you pay me to play. Sound like a good offer?

No, it’s not. You have a 1 in 6 chance of getting $1,000, so you have a 16.67% chance of winning. Multiply the probability, 16.67% times the payout, $1,000, and you come up with the expected value: $166.67. Because you have to pay $200 to play and the expected value is less, you shouldn’t play.

Let’s suppose you haven’t done the math above, and you decide to play. Suppose you win. Winning will be psychologically exhilarating, releasing all kinds of feel-good endorphins in your brain. This “high” feeling will encourage you to play again. But, the more you play, the more likely you are to lose. The odds and payout are against you.

The good result, winning luckily the first time, may encourage you to continue using a bad process, playing a game with a negative expected value.

Let’s suppose I tell you it costs $100, instead of $200, to play the game. Would you play now? Because the expected value is more than the price to play, you should play.

Let’s suppose you decide to play, but you lose the first time. Let’s suppose you play again, and lose again. The more you play and lose, the more you feel like you should quit the game. The price of playing over and over again and losing takes it’s toll on you, you begin to get angry, frustrated, and want to quit. Should you?

No. The odds and payout are in your favor, so you should keep playing. Just because the outcomes look bad over the short term, doesn’t mean they are bad over the long run. In the long run, you’ll win if you keep playing, but that takes a lot of discipline.

I think about process and results all the time. Sometimes I make a good process investment and it doesn’t do well. I beat myself up for being so stupid, but that doesn’t mean my process is bad or that my long run results will be poor. If the odds and payout are in my favor, I’ll win if I keep implementing the right process. Sometimes I make a bad process investment and it does well. This encourages me to repeat the process, especially if I don’t examine whether I was lucky or good. But, implementing the bad process will eventually catch up with me, the odds always do, and I’ll lose in the long run.

Focusing on process is vitally important in any situation where randomness plays a part. If you focus too much on short term results instead of the process, you’ll make costly and repeated mistakes.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Process versus results

One of the hardest things to do when investing is to keep my focus on process instead of results.

Does that mean that results are unimportant? No. But, it does mean that an over-emphasis on short term results can prevent me from achieving truly unique investing performance.

I find that an analogy, here, helps me grasp this difference. I believe that being honest is necessary to achieving happiness. But, being honest at any particular time does not mean that happiness will instantaneously follow. Honesty is a virtue–like all others–that yields results over the fullness of time.

It seems that everyone has heard of an unscrupulous salesperson that has made a fortune while being less than honest. Such salespeople may do very well in the short term, but over the long term they’re going to pay the price for treating others poorly. It may take decades for this price to be paid, but rest assured that it’s always paid.

The same is true with investing. Those who focus on short term results seem to always be chasing the latest hot thing. They inevitably end up buying high and selling low because they are too focused on results and not enough on process.

Generating truly excellent investment results over the fullness of time requires an intense focus on process: the process of researching, analyzing, valuing, purchasing and selling partial ownership of businesses. Any focus on short term results that distracts an investor from this process will lead to sub par results. An intense focus on short term results will lead to disastrous decisions. Trust me, I’ve made them myself.

It’s hard to focus on process at times. Sometime an investment’s price will go down as business value goes up. Sometimes price will go up much faster than underlying value. Price is important, but it can distract you from underlying value.

The key is to have a process and discipline that you know will work, and to make sure you don’t get distracted by short term results when you know long term results are what’s important.

Even after 11 years of investing, I still find myself getting distracted by short term results. What do I do? I realize I’m letting it happen, then promptly and none too gently refocus myself back on the process. And, so far, that works.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.