Monday, April 25, 2011

Notes on Investing: Baruch and Lessons Learned, Part three

In part one of this review on one of the greatest investors, Bernard Baruch, titled “Notes on Investing: Baruch and Lessons Learned“, we looked at what he has learned from his own mistakes, errors that we all make and of which numerous books have been written in anattempt to correct our own investor and totally human fallibilities on the subject. In part two, we looked at, among other things, the art of investing and getting a good night’s sleep.
  • I can’t tell you how many times I get told that having several projects in the works is multi-tasking. It is not and Baruch more or less felt the same way about what and how to focus. His belief that traders tried to be too many different things at once, concentrate on too many things at the same time and in the end try and parse all of that information in something worth investing in, something profitable, was futile. If you are going to be an investor, you will need to, in his opinion do “one thing at a time, perfect it, and do it well.”
  • In the days before behavioral finance took hold, in the days before efficient markets were thought to exist, value investors were trying to teach people how to invest.  They knew that that more you knew about the business you invested in, the better your understanding of the risks such an investment posed. To incur a loss in Baruch’s experiences as well as from what he witnessed in his cohorts, suggested that “they [knew] too little about the company’s management, earnings, prospects, and possibility for future growth.”  And Baruch, also guilty in the early days of investment career, fell into the same trap as many investor still do today.  ”They tend to trade beyond their financial capital capacity.”
  • Baruch also knew that companies were dynamic entities and need to change over time to survive. It was how they changed that matter. “Successful speculation requires staying on top of changes in industries and companies that either create new industries or improve on existing industries.” These improvements needed to come with some chance of success. Unlike the speculation during the Internet bubble, where products were scarce and promises of profits abundant, the businesses you invest in need to have something tangible in place before they start exporting the next new thing. He believed that “The majority of your profits will come from these two…..The shrewdest traders throughout history all adapted the skill of reactionary change, as the market constantly presents new and different opportunities.”
  • In recent years, the study of our emotional involvement has taken over for some previous thoughts on how we trade. And Baruch recognized these flaws early on, was able to tamp down his demons and become successful. It is no easy feat. He remarked, almost in passing: “Without control over your emotions, there is very little chance for profitable success in the stock market.”
  • In the current atmosphere of the media and what seems to be instantaneous reactions to every detail of news, one thing has never changed. In the discussion about which wags the dog, it is not the markets that do the damage, but the reaction to the economic factors at play. “The market,” he suggested,  ”does not cause economic cycles but merely reflects them and the judgments of what traders believe business and the future will be like.”
  • He believed in buy low sell high but also believed that no one could actually do it. “I made my money by selling too soon.” Market axioms aside, timing is not possible.
  • perhaps one of his greatest observations of investor foibles involved when and why investors bought and sold. “It is much harder to sell stocks correctly than to buy them correctly.” Further suggesting, quite possibly from his park bench view of the world going past, that a “stock went up, the average investor would hold because he wants more gains – he’s exhibiting greed. If the stock declines, he also holds on and hopes the stock will come back so he can at least sell and break even – he’s hoping against hope.”
  • Sitting, staring a a screen while you invest doesn’t make someone who loses any less a liar. What it does do is completely removes the blame from being laid at the feet of someone else. You invest and if you don’t do well, you have no one to blame. “Whatever failures I have known, whatever errors I have committed, whatever follies I have witnessed in private and public life have been the consequence of action without thought.”
  • Baruch did not think that anyone was capable of predicting. But we do and we listen to folks who suggest that one this news or that, the market will go higher. They don’t know. You don’t know. To which he suggested that “Every man has a right to his opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”
  • Once agin, Baruch is right on this point. But this is no easy task and I wonder if this is what Ben Graham meant when he said that there isn’t an investor in all of us, only in some of us. Baruch pointed out that the key to successful investing hinged on control: “Only as you do know yourself can your brain serve you as a sharp and efficient tool. Know your own failings, passions, and prejudices so you can separate them from what you see.”
  • Baruch was haunted by his mistakes and took numerous hours to reflect on those missteps. We, on the other hand, beleiev we should stay in the game, or get back on the horse. Baruch knew that only by going on a sort of self-induced recess would he be able to understand where he’d been, the wrong turn he’d made and why he did what he did. Do you do the same? Are you willing to take money off the table to reflect on how well you did – or didn’t? If you knew, as Baruch knew all too well that “The main purpose of the stock market is to make fools of as many men as possible”, why would continue to fight a force that only thoughtful reflection and recollection will help you overcome?
Successful investing is a fleeting, almost elusive thing. Seems as though there are millions of books and websites offering something, some rope to grasp, when it comes to investing. I even offer a few of my own. In the end, it will come down to how well you do and recognizing that if you don’t do well, you should push yourself away from the table. Investing is not for all of us. And at the same time, it is. We still need to invest for retirement. But using individual stocks is not the way most of us should pursue it.
Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer

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