on investment discipline

3 Nov

For investors, it’s imperative to establish a disciplined approach and stick with it.   Developing that approach is one of the most difficult parts, however, as what has worked over time in investing does not work at all times.  Yet regardless of what the market is doing someone has done well recently.  Some hedge fund manager made a billion dollars on natural gas spreads, wheat futures, or in Latvian mud art, rare stamps, or old soda pop bottles.  The media will always find examples of who has done well lately.  If it were easy to flit around from strategy to strategy I’d be all over it, but it’s nearly impossible to execute reliably over long time periods.  The trick is not to lose focus on your own approach and to understand that if the core investment framework is sound and well-reasoned, there’s no cause to abandon it just because it’s not working at the moment.  To do so would be like piloting a rudderless ship, at the mercy of winds on the open seas.  It’d be tough to get anywhere.

There is also an undue focus on ‘the market’.  The goal is to beat the market, yes, because active management is, in theory, a fool’s errand without this outcome.  However, the majority of active managers don’t beat the market, and even index funds fall behind (due to fees and expenses).  The overriding goal should be to limit risk while generating returns that meet long-term goals.

Let’s face reality here, the smorgasbord of available investments today – stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities – have rather low forward return prospects.  The low interest rate environment has caused asset prices to be bid up to the point where forward return prospects are in the 4-7% range on average.  The capital markets are not just a place to blindly place capital today.  As Peter Bernstein observed, “The market’s not a very accommodating machine; it won’t provide high returns just because you need them.”  Yes, it’d be nice to see double-digit returns, but given the macro environment it doesn’t look possible on a sustainable basis.  (That is, it could run up 20% annually for five years, but the gains would likely be borrowing from well into the future.)  Investors should view an index fund investment today as a decent place to put money, but not a spectacular one.  Individual investments, on the other hand, may offer opportunities for better-than-average returns.

This leads me back to the main point: finding a consistent, disciplined investment approach.  How?  Identify what’s worked over time, regardless of market environment.  A few of these are listed below.  These provide good perspective for investors today, with a stock market that has declined for the past several weeks (but nonetheless remains up for the year).  It’s useful to remind oneself frequently of what has actually worked, especially when the pickings are slim.  As mentioned, they may work over time, but notall the time.

A list of some basics:

  •           A Low Price in relation to earnings, cash flow and asset value,
  •           Insider purchases of significant size,
  •           Recent large declines in a stock’s price,
  •           Smaller companies, and
  •           The above, especially with companies that generate high returns on invested capital.

Consistent execution of a strategy is tough.  For a portfolio manager, it requires institutional support to follow a discipline, especially because there aren’t loads of qualifying investments at all times.  When stocks are cheap, it’s psychologically tough to buy (“they could go lower”) and when they’re high it’s hard to sell (“they could go higher.”)  Individuals might have an easier go at implementing the strategy – the only thing they have to fight is “the urge to do something,” which is a powerful tendency.  (Professional investors aren’t immune, either.)

A final note: following a consistent investment strategy over time requires being very discipline on price paid in relation to value.  So when one can’t find qualifying investments, what ought they do with it?  Hold cash.  Just because it’s not ‘making anything’ doesn’t mean a whole lot. Think about it this way: an investor has $1,000 and a target stock is priced at $50 (worth $50).  If the investor buys today he’ll have 20 shares.  If the stock subsequently declines to $25 (worth $50), he’ll have only $500 (20 shares at $25) and won’t be able to buy more at the now-lower price. If he waited and holds cash, he’ll have $1,000, still, and be able to buy 40 shares for $1,000 that are now worth $2,000 total.  (Yes, the stock could also go up from $50, but wasn’t under-valued in the first place.)   I call the potential returns earned from having excess cash at the right time the ‘opportunity yield’.  The ability to hold cash is an important tool in an investors’ toolkit, and one an investor shouldn’t hesitate to wield.  Warren Buffett says it eloquently, “Lethargy bordering on sloth remains the cornerstone of our investment style.”

In investing there are no strikes called for not swinging, so there’s often no point in swinging unless they’re coming down the middle of the plate.

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