Investing is not as complex as most in the field like to make it out to be. Economists, financial planners, market strategists, professors of finance and economics, etc. like to make the field seem more difficult to grasp than it is. Not surprisingly, this serves their interests.
In the Middle Ages, when hardly anyone could read or understand Latin, men of the church had a stranglehold on religious doctrine. If you wanted to understand or get guidance on the most important issues of the time, you had to go through the men of the church. This served the church’s interests well.
And, so it is now with investing. Today’s clergymen of finance work hard to cloak the simplicity of investing in higher math, floating abstractions, mindless charts, confusing terms. Their efforts are not to clarify, but to obfuscate; for, if you’re completely confused, then you’ll need their help!
(As an amusing aside: a former investing boss of mine, in criticizing my writing ability, complained that I wasn’t writing in a sufficiently high-minded way. He told me that magazines and newspapers were written at an 8th grade level, and so was my writing, but he wanted it at an 11th or 12th grade level. When I commented that it might make the writing unintelligible to many of his clients, he said that was okay because his clients would prefer someone who sounded smart over actually understanding!)
So, why do I claim that investing is simple? I read a description of investing 16 years ago that made perfect sense and was simple, and I’ve used it ever since. This description, from Benjamin Graham and David Dodd’s Security Analysis, 1934:
“An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.”
No mention of alpha, beta, standard deviation, diversification, macro-economic forecasting, the efficient frontier, small cap blend, negative correlation, optimized portfolios. You’re investing if you 1) do thorough analysis, and 2) invest in securities that promise a) safety of principal and b) a satisfactory return.
If you don’t do thorough analysis or hire someone who doesn’t, it’s not investing, it’s speculation. No stock tips, no hunches, no astrology, no gut feel, no “I just know…”, no buying lots of everything–just thorough analysis.
If you invest in securities that don’t promise–first–safety of principal and–second–a satisfactory return, then you’re not investing, you’re speculating. A lot of investors focus on that second part, the satisfactory return part, but few put the emphasis necessary on the first part (which Graham and Dodd correctly made primary).
Many financial planners and investment advisors give lip service to safety of principal, or capital preservation, but few give it the attention it needs. This lip service to capital preservation is frequently waved away with the magic of diversification. If you put your eggs in many baskets, they say, then there’s no way all your eggs will break at once.
2008, or any other financial crisis in history for that matter, should put that notion to rest. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. Putting your eggs in poorly built baskets, no matter how many of them, is unwise.
Capital preservation is also framed in terms of volatility. If the basket goes up and down a lot, they say, you’ll get scared. Fear is a relevant issue, but it’s not the same as capital preservation. Capital preservation is whether the eggs break or remain whole, not whether they are jostled or swung about.
Capital preservation means you get back what you put in. Not volatility, not fear, but whether you get back what you put in. The price of an investment may go up and down and all over, but it’s still capital preservation if you get back what you put in.
Risk, as Graham defined it, is the permanent loss of capital. Not the temporary loss of capital, not the fear of the loss of capital, but the permanent loss of capital. Not eggs jostled or raised and lowered, but eggs BROKEN.
If your investment returns the capital you put in, then capital has been preserved. If not, or if the safety of that capital, upon thorough analysis, is suspect, then it’s not investing.
This raises an important issue which many overlook: capital preservation is preservation of the spending power of the capital. Not the capital quoted in dollars, drachma, cows, or shells, but the real, sustainable purchasing power of that capital. If you put in 6 large eggs and get back 6 small ones, or if even 1 is missing, then it’s not capital preservation.
Many incorrectly think of cash or bonds as being the soundest means of capital preservation. In most cases it is, but not if inflation occurs. If inflation is a real threat over the time-frame that capital must be used, then capital preservation must necessarily include inflation protection. Cash and bonds, by themselves, don’t cut it.
Most investing experts focus too much on secondary, tertiary, etc., issues. They focus on diversification, statistical “guarantees,” unexamined impressions, recent history. But, investing just isn’t that complex.
You need to do thorough analysis (examine that basket in-depth), you need to preserve capital primarily (will I get back the same number of actual eggs I put in the basket, unbroken), and you’d like to get a satisfactory return secondarily (given that the number and size of eggs is safe, can I get back more eggs than I put in).
It’s not rocket science or brain surgery–it’s quite simple.
But, as Warren Buffett put it, investing is simple, but not easy. Which means: knowing how to invest is not complex, but doing it well is difficult. Losing weight requires you to consumer more calories than you put in–that’s simple. But doing it isn’t easy–it’s very difficult (especially around Christmas!).
Perhaps Buffett’s investment success should lead investors to focus on his methodology (including very little of what financial clergymen sell), which starts with: capital preservation.
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.