I get a fair amount of emails both from readers of the blog and listeners to the podcast. Most of the emails come from people who listen to the podcast. The two most common varieties are: 1) “Before I listened to your podcast, I thought investing was impossibly complicated; now, I think it may be simple enough for someone like me.” 2) “Before I listened to your podcast, I though investing was simple; now, I think it may be too complicated for someone like me.”
Part of the reason for these two very different reactions is the nature of the podcast. I talk for almost half an hour about things that aren’t regularly discussed at length by the financial media. So, it’s natural for listeners to feel I’m discussing something familiar in an unfamiliar way.
That can cause listeners to question some of their beliefs, especially if those beliefs weren’t all that firmly held to begin with. Most people’s beliefs about investing are very tenuous. There are, of course, people who are very passionate about investing. They don’t view investing as some esoteric subject, but rather as a field intimately connected to the human behavior they observe in their everyday lives.
For everyone else, however, beliefs about investing come in the form of passive knowledge. The tendency is simply to accumulate an inventory of conventional dictums. Investing beliefs are formed much the way a student prepares for a test. If the subject of investing were as simple as a third grade spelling bee, this wouldn’t be a problem.
But, investing is a far more complex subject. That isn’t to say it is necessarily a difficult subject. For some, it is relatively easy. But, it is never simple. An investor can not analyze relationships with the certitude and precision a physicist can. The investor is concerned with human phenomena, which are necessarily complex phenomena.
The complexity of the subject is what makes it appear so difficult. While you can develop a set of guiding principles, it is impossible to devise rules that will lead you to the best course of action in each and every case.
If you try to build an intellectual edifice based on principles such as high returns on equity, strong consumer franchises, low price-to-earnings ratios, low enterprise value-to-EBIT ratios, high free cash flow margins, and rock solid balance sheets – you will fail.
The entire structure will collapse, leaving the architect disillusioned. Why? Because the items listed above are desirable attributes – nothing more and nothing less. They are not true principles. Even as rules of thumb, they are badly flawed. Ultimately, investment decisions are not made about general classes; they are made about special cases.
Every investment decision requires good judgment and sound reasoning. You need to start with the correct principles. But, principles alone are not enough. You aren’t being asked what the law is, you’re being told to apply the law to the …Read more