Sunday, November 16, 2008

Writing and Investing

I have always had interests in two, somewhat incompatible areas: writing stories, often with philosophical questions in mind, and investing money. I tell friends who have known, or discovered, these long-standing interests in me that I love stories, language, immersing myself in working out hard philosophical problems and in creating characters to play out the questions in my mind, and I also love numbers, discovering the ‘story’ of a small company, and the detail work of finding a good business or management before many other investors do. But there is more to it than that.

Right after college and during graduate school, I had in my mind that I wanted to write what I wanted to write, without the pressures of writing what the prevailing commercial book market wanted of any writer, including a ‘Latino’ writer. I wanted to hone my craft in my own way; I wanted to keep reading Aristotle and Nietzsche; I don’t ever like being under anybody’s boot. Also, when I read what was routinely published, and promoted, at local bookstores, I did not want to have to compromise my work for the sake of making money. Perhaps this was too self-righteous and even stupid, but that’s me. I think I have mellowed over the years, but as my mother would say, “Eres demasiado terco.” I am too stubborn.

To pay for this cursed independence, to pay for not wanting a boss, years ago I began learning how to invest money. I finished finance and accounting books my friends who were in MBA programs recommended to me. I studied the annual reports of Berkshire Hathaway, read Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis, read Peter Lynch and Ralph Wanger and many others. I began ordering annual and quarterly reports from companies, and to my amazement, every report arrived free, in my mailbox, and I just had to understand the company, the business, and find out as much as I could through the Internet. I did this, and continue to do this, for dozens of potential investments every year. Most of the company reports are now online. Alas, this year has indeed been brutal for my stocks, yet I am still surviving this bear market.

The stubbornness and independence that have propelled my writing have also informed my investing. I do not want to be part of the crowd, as an investor, or as a writer. I have little interest in the latest literary fad, or what will make a big splash at the bookstore, just as much as I have no interest in day-trading, or any other speculative way of making money. I do not market-time, as an investor, nor as a writer. My intention is to write stories that I hope will still be good stories ten years from now, and I buy shares of companies that I intend to keep just as long.

I am not sure I would recommend this path to any writer. I did it out of necessity, and perhaps because I also knew myself only too well (Socrates’ exhortation). I also did it because I like to work, and the value that work bestows upon my soul, and because I love doing my own work, in my own way. It is a cage, this self, and I have tried to make the best of my cage, to turn my weaknesses into strengths, and perhaps to make this cage into the key for my freedom. What else can we do?