Personal Background

Investing has interested me at least since I was a teenager. In high school, I thought it was fun to browse websites such as the Motley Fool to see what stocks they recommended, even though I had no money to speak of. At the time, I didn't realize that most of the articles were likely carefully crafted, sensationalized pieces rather than sound advice. But, at that stage it didn't matter because I didn't have any money to speculate with anyways. A virtual stock market game with my high school economics class was the closest I got to any sort of experience.

By my first semester of college I had some funds, and at the suggestion of my dad, I decided to make some preliminary investments (this was in the fall of 2015). Following his recommendation, I put most of the money into a few mutual funds and bought a few stocks with the remaining portion. Most of these stocks I picked because I knew or liked the company or its products - I made no effort to consider the financial statements, look at past performance, examine price-to-earnings ratios, or anything of the sort. Then I just let them sit for a few years while I was abroad. Fortunately for me, the economy picked up during that period. I was happy that my investments had appreciated in value, and my basic investing philosophy was "just pick some things you like and hope they go up, because they probably will eventually". But I think deep down I knew there must be more to it than simply getting lucky with timing the market.

Intelligent Investing

It took me another two years to start learning how to invest intelligently. Again at the recommendation of my dad, I read The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham. Clocking in at nearly 600 pages, it definitely wasn't a quick weekend read. Nevertheless, the lessons contained within are plentiful and will certainly necessitate some re-reading in the future.

Graham leads off by clearly differentiating between investing and speculating. He argues that the simple act of purchasing a security doesn't qualify one as an investor: in fact, he finds that most people involved on Wall Street are actually speculators. He defines an investment as an

operation... which, upon thorough analysis promises safety of principal and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.

He then spends most of the rest of his book explaining how to conduct a thorough analysis and understanding what qualifies as an adequate return. Graham is a proponent of the theory of value investing; in fact, he might term this the only legitimate form of investing. A simple example I heard first from my high school economics teacher, but which was also in Graham's book, might help to illustrate the idea behind value investing: if you could buy a dollar bill for 40 cents, would you? Value investing is concerned with ensuring that the investor is getting good value for the money (s)he spends. Thus, a great deal of effort is put into attempting to ascertain the value of a company before purchasing stock in it (the philosophy is also applied to other types of investments). This philosophy stands opposed to growth investing, which is primarily concerned with the future prospects of a company and what it might be worth down the road. In essence, Graham's argument goes something like this: why worry about guessing what a stock might be worth in the future if everything goes smoothly, when you can buy a company that is clearly worth more than its current price, now?

Is the Market Rational?

A friend of mine likes to make fun of the field of economics and says it's all bogus because it assumes that market participants are rational actors, when they clearly aren't. While I still think a lot of theories and observations of economics hold, there is certainly some truth to his point. The efficient-market hypothesis suggests that stock prices are an accurate representation of all available information regarding the stocks in question. It follows, then, that nobody could realistically "beat the market", because the only movement in stock prices would happen in response to new information, which market participants would not be privy to ahead of time. Nevertheless, Warren Buffett, the most famous disciple of Ben Graham, presents a list of several of his fellow Graham disciples and their corresponding records in an appendix of this book that clearly demonstrate they have all beaten the market for extended periods of time. How can this be? Well, maybe a lot of folks are missing out on some vital, available information. Or they aren't rational. Or maybe both.

One of my favorite metaphors in the book was Graham's presentation of Mr. Market. Mr. Market is a hypothetical friend of yours who tells you what he thinks your stock holdings are worth every day, and offers to either buy them from you or sell you more at that price. Sometimes his prices seem reasonable, but other times he goes a bit off his rocker in terms of how much he will pay for your stock, or how little he will sell you more for. Nothing forces you to buy from or sell to him, but it's always an option. Graham then proceeds to explain that this is exactly what everybody who owns stock can actually do in real life. We are under no obligation to sell our stocks because they have decreased in price (according to the market), nor do we need to buy stocks because Mr. Market thinks they are suddenly worth more today: we can form and act on our own opinions! Indeed, Graham identifies these irrational behaviors of impulse buying/selling as fairly commonplace and direct contributors to the unfortunate reality of many who "buy high, sell low". Humans are social creatures, and in many ways we can't help but be influenced by the movement of the herd. But Graham astutely points out that market prices really aren't all that relevant, unless we want to take advantage of them to buy cheaply or sell when the market is over-hyping one of our holdings - in all other cases, we might be better off if we had no idea what the market prices were.

Now here I was thinking, no way would any serious person buy overpriced stocks just because other people were? But there were many humorous yet simultaneously sobering examples presented of significant overvaluations of companies, to the tune of a company worth $1.5 billion in real assets selling in the market in the range of $100 billion. There are also plenty of instances of companies that spent $2 to make $1, that were nevertheless selling at decently high prices. I never understood how such an enterprise could make sense to anyone, outside of vague "hope".

Practical Advice

While the book presents so much awesome material that it's really worth the read, I'll try to recap some of the main lessons I took away for your benefit.

  1. A simple policy for what Graham calls a "defensive investor" is to simply park your money in a low-cost index fund and then get on with your life. In general, looking back on the history of the stock market, the value of American enterprise has tended to increase on average throughout the years. If you want to do minimal work and still see the benefits of compound interest, just dump your investment money in something like $SPY that tracks all the stocks in the S&P 500. You don't have to take the time to do thorough analysis, because this fund already owns most all stocks worth owning, so you can expect average returns.
  2. Don't bother subscribing to any sort of obscure formulas or theories, because once the under-the-radar formulas get popular, they might stop working in consequence of all the people adopting it.
  3. Diversification is important. While assessing the value of a stock yourself is an important step to take, it does not preclude unforeseen events from occurring which lead to price drops. There is also the distinct possibility, or rather certainty that some of your appraisals will simply be incorrect. Thus, to guard against this possibility, you can spread your investments across different industries, countries, security types, etc. to avoid a precipitous downfall in everything you own. Mutual and index funds provide for easy diversification.
  4. When you purchase a stock, consider yourself a part-owner of the company - because you are! This mindset is helpful because you can ask yourself, "Do I really want to be an owner of this company? I know it's a dumpster fire bound to fail, but I might be able to squeeze some value out of it before people realize..." This is probably a dangerous road to go down.
  5. There are several criterion for assessing the value of a company or its stock that Graham explains in detail in the book, and which I can't possibly cover all of here. However, one that stuck out to me was one I mentioned earlier - the price-to-earnings ratio. One intuitive explanation of this number is, "how much am I willing to pay for $1 of profit?" Typically companies with lower multipliers are seen as favorable for investment by Graham. He also highlights the importance of price to book value, or what the company could be liquidated for (ex. if its buildings, factories, inventory, etc. were simply sold). He presents some interesting cases where companies that had fallen on hard times were actually selling for less than the market value of their tangible assets - free money!
  6. Going along with the above, Graham acknowledges that growth companies are not inherently bad - in fact, sometimes they are spectacularly strong companies with seemingly bright futures. The issue he takes with them as investments is that the public has already priced in the opportunity for growth, thus they are, in essence, paying up-front for growth that, while "likely", may not materialize. Graham often found better deals in companies that were unpopular, or had fallen on temporary hard times that didn't necessarily reduce the long-term value of the company. Thus, he doesn't really label stocks as "good" or "bad", outside of those that are actually fraudulent: there are simply cheap and expensive stocks (relative to their true value).
  7. Speculating in day trading is almost certainly a waste of time, but if you want to, limit it to a very small portion of your funds, and make sure you would be ok if it all disappeared.
  8. In general, don't buy IPOs - most of the money to be made is already locked up by insiders.

Concluding Thoughts

Well, this got pretty long for my first post. Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. While some of the material is a bit dated (was last revised in the 70s), the editor provided a lot of useful commentary, modern examples, and other insights to "update" the book for a contemporary reader. There are some parts that just don't really apply anymore, or areas that have since disappeared from common investing, so don't feel bad about skipping some sections as appropriate (I did).

I haven't read very many books on investing yet, so I can't say this is "by far the best book about investing ever written", as Warren Buffett does, but I can tell you that I learned a lot that I intend to put into practice. If you're interested in a much shorter read that humorously and succinctly summarizes the principles discussed in the book, take a look at this speech by Buffett at Columbia for the anniversary of an earlier book of Graham's that became the basis for The Intelligent Investor.

Thanks for reading, and till next time!

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