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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Investment Character

I am reading the biography Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder, and thoroughly enjoying it. Years ago I read Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor; I teach parts of Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis; each year I read Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report to understand some of what they are doing and why.

I would not consider myself a Buffettologist in the sense that I copy whatever stock investments Warren Buffett makes. But I do try to understand what he does and why, and apply those principles to companies and industries I am familiar with. Do your own homework, I say. Understand where your money is, and why it’s there. That’s the way to be an intelligent, independent investor.

As I’ve read this biography, I am not surprised to learn Buffett was/is good at math and calculating odds; I am not surprised to learn his friend Charlie Munger is much the same way. Ideas pour out from their heads; they are passionate about investing, and they believe they are right. ‘Didactic,’ is how they describe themselves. Other words that come to mind are ‘relentless,’ ‘iconoclastic,’ ‘anti-social,’ and ‘obsessed with details.’ They are also honest, self-critical, and loyal to those whom they think deserve loyalty.

When I have taught my summer course on Investment Analysis, I have always argued that number-crunching is only half the battle to becoming a good investor. The other half, and maybe even the most important part, is having the right kind of character to be a successful investor. I think you can train someone to understand and calculate the right figures from annual reports, 10-K reports, and 10-Q reports. I think you can teach someone to use discounted cash flow analysis to get a sense of whether the current stock price correctly values, or undervalues, future earnings.

(I’m not surprised Ben Graham did not give much weight to future earnings, because I also believe projections into the future are dicey figures easily manipulated to prove whatever you want to prove. Understand the nature of the business at hand, and how it can remain profitable forever, or be easily susceptible to margin pressures, inflation, taxation and so on, and that’s how you can truly value ‘future earnings.’ You won’t get an exact number, but you’ll get a sense of whether this business is worth owning. It’s better to be approximately right than exactly wrong. I think Buffett said that.)

But my point is that while number-crunching is largely teachable, having the right investment character is for the most part not. I don’t care what anybody else thinks, and I don’t look for others’ approval of my investment ideas, nor for my clothing, nor for my unorthodox political positions, nor my blog entries. I have always been that way. As a toddler, my mother called me ‘viejo Josisah,’ which was the name of a crotchety old man she once knew in Chihuahua. I was grumpy; I loved being alone; I was, in a word, ‘didactic.’ Now I am a rumpled, ornery man on Broadway, with what I consider to be a plain look on my face but which my wife Laura says looks like a permanent scowl.

That kind of investment character makes it easy to go against the crowd, to not panic when others are decrying the end of capitalism as we know it, or to not join the party when the champagne corks fly to the ceiling because of Internet stocks, China, or whatever the next new fad is. I also don’t like debt. I try to keep things simple. I try to see things as they are, not as I wish them to be, at least for my investments. The recent market meltdown, although painful, was not enough to change my ways; I had enough liquidity to survive.

So ‘Know Thyself,’ that Socratic maxim, is so important to me as an investor. If you know you don’t have the right kind of investment character, then lowering your costs with an index fund is about the smartest thing you can do. If you think you have the right math skills and character, and you start running your own individual stock portfolio, and then you panic when others head for the hills, or you slavishly follow the momentum of euphoria, then learn from that. Those that learn from clear-eyed self-reflection and analysis will be winners on Wall Street. Those that don’t will embody Mr. Market’s schizophrenia.


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