Monday, November 23, 2009

Know Thyself and Buyer Beware

Know thyself and buyer beware. These are phrases I not only preach but also practice, particularly when I make financial decisions each year. I have been talking about the importance of financial literacy with friends and also leaders in the Latino community. Here are a few thoughts.

I believe in self-honesty and knowing what you don’t know, self-education, and self-reliance. Let me take the last first, and tell you why and how they apply in becoming a financially literate individual.

Self-reliance. When I graduated from Harvard in the mid-1980s, I had no money, I was in debt, and I was about to enter graduate school at Yale, to assume even more debt and continue my education. I watched every penny. My bed for years was cinderblocks I found on the street covered by an old sheet of plywood and topped by a thick piece of foam. I saved money, even while at school, and opened my first money market fund.

Self-reliance and my cost-cutting ways were my methods of increasing the amount of capital even when I was earning small salaries as a teaching assistant. Yet even then, I knew that unless I made my savings grow, I would never go beyond a hand-to-mouth existence. So I also began investing in mutual funds. It was the beginning of one of the greatest bull markets in history, so I was also lucky.

Because I used my own investment money, no committee had to be consulted, no outside investor would ring my phone in the middle of the night to cry about losses, and I could choose out-of-favor or even unknown companies (except to me) and invest in them for the long-term. Self-reliance also meant patient money.

Self-education. As I invested, I also began to read. Benjamin Graham. Peter Lynch. Ralph Wanger. Warren Buffett. Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal. John Bogle. Jeremy Siegel. Philip A. Fisher. I am still reading books about investing, by investors and fund managers, and professors of finance. I also taught myself financial accounting, by reading accounting books. I wanted to be able to read and understand 10-K reports and annual reports, and how companies work to make profits.

But my education was not just book-learning. As I invested and learned on the fly, I saw how the financial press was manipulated by many mutual fund companies that trumpeted ‘stellar funds’ with great short-term records, only to have these same funds explode with assets the next year and the managers produce mediocre returns or leave for more money to other fund firms. These ‘stellar funds’ also carried high costs: win or lose, the fund managers still made money for themselves.

Costs matter. Costs are permanent. Invest in index funds, which are the lowest cost funds, particularly at a place like Vanguard. Index funds also have no prima donna fund managers. Buy three or four index funds that represent the stock and bond categories you want to be in, and that should be the plan for the majority of investors who are passive. Passive simply means you are not buying and selling individual stocks, you don’t have the time and inclination, and it’s better to know what you don’t know and invest in index funds. Investing is Socratic: those who don’t know who they are as investors will soon be ripped off by manipulators who appeal to the greed and vanity of the hapless.

Self-honesty. I made many investing mistakes. In my early years, I invested with ‘stellar stock funds,’ which soon tanked. Taco Cabana, another mistake. Stay away from restaurants and airlines. I know certain industries pretty well, but others are too difficult for me to understand, or too unpredictable as businesses. I stay away from what I don’t know, and if I want to know I do hours, even years, of homework.

I have not made many mistakes selling; I don’t know why. I do have a sense of when to get out when I have followed and invested in a company for years. But I have made mistakes buying early, a bit too high, for example. Over-enthusiasm. In a market rout, I don’t panic. I have thick skin, and I don’t report to anybody on my investments. Last March, the nadir of recent stock market valuations, I was indeed worried, yet I stuck to my individual stocks and index funds. I did nothing, which was the smartest thing I did all year.

Investing is about being efficient with the extra capital you have. Invest it well, learn who you are as an investor, and make saving money your constant priority. Then investing will be your path to independence.