Lucky, or good?

One of the hardest things to do well, especially as an investor, is to learn from our mistakes.

When we pick an investment that does well, it’s easy to think about it, analyze it, dwell on how smart we are. But, when an investment goes against us, it can be very tempting to put those losses into our mental dustbin and try to forget them.

This temptation really should be resisted, because learning from our mistakes is more important than celebrating our victories.

Just as important, and more often overlooked, is that we should examine critically our successes, too. Sometimes good outcomes are due to luck and not skill. We need to understand which occurred to improve our results over time.

I like to look just as hard at my failures and my successes, because learning from both can reveal powerful lessons that can be applied in the future. I’ve found this can lead to much better investment results over time.

There are several questions I ask myself with both successes and mistakes:

  1. What happened at the underlying business in terms of fundamentals?
  2. What happened to the market price and valuation with respect to those fundamentals?
  3. Was I lucky, or good?

(I ask more questions than this, but these are the most important ones.)


When I invest, I do it based on certain assumptions about underlying growth in sales or book value and underlying margins or returns on equity. My first question is to figure out how far off I was in evaluating those underlying fundamentals. Did the company grow faster or slower than I expected? Were the margins higher or lower? What led to those outcomes and how was that different than my expectation?

My first question is about the underlying company separate from the market’s reaction to it. The second question is about how the market reacted to those fundamentals. Sometimes a company does worse than you think it will, but the market’s opinion becomes more favorable than you thought it would. Sometimes a company does better than expected, but the market’s opinion about the business becomes worse.  

The answers to the first two questions helps me answer the third question: was I lucky or good? When a company does much worse than I expect, but the market’s opinion about the company improves, that’s more lucky than good. When a company does much better than expected, but the market’s opinion sours, that’s unlucky.  

It’s very important to differentiate between luck and skill with investing. If you’ve been lucky and don’t identify it as such, you’re likely to repeat that process and see your luck run out. I had a lot of success buying technology companies from 1996-2000 each time prices pulled back temporarily.  That success was more luck than skill, and I ended up paying the price later when that strategy no longer worked.  

It’s also important to differentiate between bad luck and bad skill. If you pick a company that does well, but sell it because the market’s opinion of the company worsens over time, you will likely miss large future gains. A good process may lead to bad results occasionally, but that’s a bad reason to give up on the good process.

Learning from mistakes can be very time consuming, and that puts many people off. You have to go back and look at historical fundamentals over time, you have to look at how the market reacts to those fundamentals, you have to adjust for temporary changes like recessions or transitional industry dynamics, you have to keep track of your initial expectations and how they changed over time. It’s not simply a matter of looking at your returns in a vacuum, but of evaluating your results relative to your expectations, market reactions and alternative options.

I believe the effort is well worth it, though. When you realize you had good luck instead of good skill, you can prevent that process from happening in the future. If you realize you’ve been unlucky and not unskillful, you can keep that process in place to profit when the odds turn your way. 

No one relishes examining bone-head mistakes in detail, or realizing one’s brilliant outcome was luck instead of skill. But if you like improving results over time, the effort is well worth it.

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.

Lucky, or good?

Caveman brain and variable cycles

Almost everyone claims to be a long term investor, but few truly are.

A person’s real attitude toward investing only becomes obvious with time.  One person initiates an investment approach and sticks to it for 20 years, while another switches after it doesn’t “work” over three.  The result is almost always good performance for the person who sticks to one approach, and terrible results for the person who changes course every three years.

In my opinion, the cause of this short-term-orientation is twofold.  

First, human psychology really does a number on us.  Our caveman brain evolved to handle different problems.  You don’t need more than three years of data to decide whether you should run from a hungry lion or a pack of wolves.  But, hunter-gatherers and farmers need to think longer-range to survive.  Unusually bad winters and poor rainy seasons don’t happen every year, but when they do, you’d better have enough food and clothing stored, or you won’t survive.  On an evolutionary time-scale, this thinking is pretty new to us.  As a result, we make lots of mistakes when our caveman emotions take over from our long-range, reasoning mind.

I’m as prone to this difficulty as everyone else, much to my distaste.  My biggest investing mistakes are seldom a refusal to sell something bad, but impatiently selling something too soon.  I, too, have suffered from short-term-orientation with investments that weren’t “working,” only to see them take off shortly after selling.  

I sold Berkshire Hathaway in November 2009 (having held it for 3 1/2 years) shortly after Buffett bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.  Buffett was clearly signaling that his company would never grow like it had in the past.  The stock then jumped 21% in four months.  I was right about underlying growth, but wrong to have sold at a low price to fundamentals.

I sold UnitedHealth in November 2010 (3 1/2 year holding, also) after company management had repeatedly described how new health care legislation could rapidly change their business model.  The stock proceeded to climb 44% in the eight months after I sold.  Once again, I was right on the fundamentals of the business, but wrong on the decision to sell when price to fundamentals were still too low.

My purpose in giving these examples is not to highlight what a moron I am (I’ve actually gotten many more right than wrong–no really!), but to illustrate that even someone aware of the psychological traps of investing can still fall into them.  The solution is better process, which is fertilized with a thorough, rational analysis of past mistakes.

The second reason I think short-term-orientation sets in has to do with the fundamental nature of investing and business cycles, which are wildly variable in amplitude and duration.  Just as you can’t decide the quality of farmland without considering weather cycles, so you can’t decide what’s going on with an investment without considering investing and business cycles–and that makes analyses more difficult.  

Investing cycles are caused by the boom and bust mentality of investors.  One year investors eagerly pay 20x earnings for an investment, and another year they won’t pay 5x.  This boom-bust cycle is caused by the psychology of investors as a herd.  They go from euphoria to terror and back again over time, and no one can predict how long the cycle takes or when it will reach its zenith or nadir.

Business cycles, which are less psychological than investing cycles, are caused by a variety of things (including government policy, fads and fashions, competitive dynamics, just to name a few).  Like investing cycles, business cycles follow unpredictable paths that can distort the information investors need to make good decisions.  A rational analysis of long-term sales and margins over the full cycle is required, as is an in-depth analysis of industry and company dynamics.  Is a downward cycle permanent, or temporary?  Has a paradigm shift occurred that makes the business model defunct?  Only time will tell.

Investors generally have a hard time handling investing and business cycles.  Its easy to panic and “throw in the towel” when the future is unknown, but it rarely generates good investment returns.  People would love to know if their investment approach is working by seeing results right away, but the world is too complicated to say one, three or even five years of data are enough.  It depends, and each cycle is different than the last.  It’s more constructive to look at long data samples, but few have the patience or desire for such work.

Given that, what’s the solution?  

First, you’ll only stick to an approach over the long run if you really–deep down–know it works.  If you’ve looked at the long term data, you’ll know that value investing crushes growth investing over the long term.  If you spend enough time picking the right approach (or the right manager), it’s possible to ride through periods of under-performance that can last as long as a decade.  If not, you’ll panic and abandon ship at just the wrong time.

Second, you’ll have to do battle with your psychology.  You will feel emotions when your investments tank.  You will want to throw in the towel when something isn’t working for several years.  Be ready to fight your emotions with reason, data, analysis, or whatever else helps you.  I’ve found temporary distraction works, as does exercise, deep breathing, meditation, reading.  Do what you must to hold emotion at bay and focus on the facts.  Only then will you stick to your approach.

Our caveman brain and variable cycles make sticking to an investment approach very difficult, but not impossible.  The rewards, however, are truly extraordinary and well worth the time, effort and intermittent anxiety.  

Find the right approach, and stick to it!

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.

Caveman brain and variable cycles

Short term pain, long term happiness

With my daughter turning three in August, I know we’ll soon have a conversation or two about honesty. 

It’s a complicated subject, so I expect this conversation to occur off and on over the next…say…75 years (I plan to live to 115).

Most people think honesty is about lying or not lying, and therefore not very complicated.  I disagree.  I think honesty is about facing the facts.  If you frame honesty in such a way, you can live a moral life, and achieve and sustain happiness (which is what I think morality is all about).

You can lie and be moral.  For example, if I’m served liver and Brussels sprout casserole I can tactifully lie by thanking the server.  I’m not denying the fact that I hate liver and Brussels sprouts, but the thanks is polite.  That white lie is not incompatible with honesty.

If the Nazis come to my door and ask where I’m hiding the Jews, I can’t say, “first door on the left,” and be moral.  Once again, the lie does not deny the facts, it simply acknowledges that I have no moral obligation to be truthful with monsters (actually, being truthful will definitely bring unhappiness).

It’s my stand that you have to be honest, to face the facts, in order to be happy.  But, happiness is not equal to instant gratification.  Sometimes, being honest with oneself or others is short term painful.

For example, think about making a mistake on the job and telling your boss.  Your boss is unlikely to be happy, but you have to face the the facts and let your boss know because she has the right to know.  If your boss is any good, she will reward that honesty over time even if she isn’t happy with the mistake.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that many (most?) moral things, like honesty, are short term painful in order to reach long term happiness.

I exercise 5 days a week.  I work out hard enough that it’s mildly painful.  But, the rewards pay for the effort.

I work hard to find investments.  I spent hours, day, months doing research on each investment idea.  This is rarely a fully pleasant experience.  And yet, I know it will work in the long run.  That’s why I do it.

Buying investments that will do better than average almost always includes short term pain.  The reason why it will do better than average is because something is wrong.  Most people will think you’re nuts for investing there–that’s why it’s cheap!

Over the long run, too, buying such short term pain provides long term happiness.

Do you think my three year old will understand why honesty or investing can bring short term pain and long term happiness?  No, me neither. 

But, over time she will, and then she’ll be long term happy, too.

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.

Short term pain, long term happiness