Mar

14

 I am both an investor and trader. But looking at my results I should probably only be an investor. It is not easy to trade with a full-time job on the side.

As an investor I am 100% long with my stocks. I will stay 100% long no matter what. I can sell a stock, but only if I am able to find a better one to replace it. I am not going to sell because of the overall market. Actually, I could sell if it goes up 130% like Shanghai last year. But I am never going to sell because it has been going down.

Today, my investments are down 2% from 12/31/2006, and down 10% from February intraday peak equity. I don't care the slightest bit. They could go down 30% and I wouldn't care either.

I am not crazy. There is a very good reason for this stubbornness.

I started investing seriously in stocks in 1996. Since then there has been a crisis in 1997, another one in 1998, and one of the biggest bear markets in history in 2000-2002. I was investing with a mix of stock picking, market timing, style timing, and small/big timing. Believe it or not my market timing allowed me to sell at all the intermediate tops in 1997, in 1998, and in March 2000. It allowed me to avoid the bulk of the bear market in 2000-2002. I came back too early in August 2002, sold in September, came back at the exact bottom in March 2003!

With this nearly perfect timing, you would think I have impressive compounded returns. That couldn't be further from the true. At the end in 2005, I did a complete audit of my 10-year record. It was prompted, among other things, by some things I read on the Spec List, mostly from the Chair but not only from him. So thank you guys for your down-to-earth audit-prompting approach.

Results of the 10-year audit:

Market timing resulted in dramatically lower volatility and draw-downs than the market; but who cares? It resulted in only a 2% over-performance compared to the index. In terms of absolute returns, beating the index by only 2% is ridiculous. It is incredible that even though I caught most major tops and bottoms in 10 years, I only over-performed by 2%. Even more sobering is that if I had kept the first 10 stocks I ever bought and never sold them, forgot them and never done anything else, my over-performance would have been 4%.

How could this happen? Well, that's very easy:

First, I caught all the actual tops, but also about 10 of them which never turned out to be tops. The market continued higher and I missed part of the move. Second, even when the top was an actual top and I was flat, it created the problem of knowing when to get back in, which in most cases occurred a bit too late. Third, buying and selling too much is created a lot of friction in the form of commissions. Over 10 years, the amount paid in commissions can be really impressive.

Based on this I decided to be always 100% long. I am not timing the market, styles, or anything any longer. I still hope to continue beating the market by a couple percent a year from stock-picking (probably more beta than alpha). I don't care if the results are more volatile. This is largely compensated by a huge decrease in workload and worry. Freed time can be dedicated to more useful pursuits, like learning to trade.

Jaime Klein writes:

I have, well, had, two now only one extremely financially talented relatives. The late one, when told I was going into the financial business, laughed rather rudely, I thought. And noting so many of my family members were already in that line of work, he asked me who was going to bring home the bacon. Well, he said, seeing as you're determined, I'd give you this bit of advice: Never buy a stock if in your lifetime you don't see it returning your original investment to you annually in dividends. And if they're any good, they only pay two percent.

Absurdly enough, his own results were so far beyond this as to make this counsel seem the most conservative expectation possible. He was probably 30 years ahead of the sage into Coca Cola, which he obtained by selling Minute Maid to them for stock. He never sold it except to buy the occasional Goya or Renoir, or make a charitable donation to Harvard or MIT.

I was aware of only two other plays: one was a quick flip which his partner told me netted over 100X in less than three years. The other was selling United Fruit, which I imagine he paid near nothing for, to Eli Black, right at the top back in the conglomerate heat of the '60s. I can't remember much about the foolish and ill-fated acquisitor except that he defenestrated himself shortly thereafter, taking his briefcase along with him.

Anyway, it's been my pleasure, while unfortunately lacking in outstanding talent myself, to have met so many ingenious and interesting people in my all too brief 65 years. One of these days I'm hoping I'll learn something from them. But in the meanwhile, it's always fascinating, albeit particularly in the political and religious arenas sometimes quite alarming, to see how clever so many people are.

From Scott Brooks:

Volatility is a terrible measure of risk. There is no risk on the upside of volatility. The goal should be to reduce all down side volatility, thus my patented investment strategy of buy low and sell high (Green List/Red List post from several months ago).

In all seriousness, I am fixated on the discovery of ways to mitigate downside volatility while participating in most of the upside of volatility. But since I'm far from the smartest person on this list and have been told in no uncertain terms that it can't be done, I feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle. Still, who knows, maybe there is a way!

I've never been one to give up just because others say it can't be done. If I listened to others (like my guidance counselors), I'd probably be laying carpet back in Maplewood, going to the corner bar, watching COPS every night, and aspiring only to be the "Maplewoods, King of White Trash."

From Craig Mee:

I accept these results, however…

Plenty of you know a lot more about stocks then I do. But I would like to offer here that a two percent increase in returns and with this, the opportunity to be out of the market in major declines, represents to me some nice sleepy nights.

With a bit of fine-tuning maybe marks can be picked slightly better on entering and exiting longer term positions. But on that black swan event, when something may drive the market into a huge selling spiral, I believe for me at least it may be worth that extra agro.

From Kim Zussman:

Similar but less quantitative self-assessments:

1. At least in US, taxes bite deeply into putative alpha (or masquerading beta) if you trade vs buy and hold.

2. Concur that most effect was lowering volatility. You will get lower volatility with stocks<100%, and pretty much always lower returns. Looking back, you will regret not being 100% stocks, but during the ride you live happier <<100%. Thinking about a big down year as a future possibility feels a lot different than having one.*

3. Besides drift, the reason buy and hold works is that there is too much temptation for the vast majority of people to time the market. It is unnatural not to check your investments, and not to be tempted to act on them. People don't like it when their million $ port becomes worth $800,000, and sell before "losing it all". Then it turns around and people don't like missing up 30% years, and buy back in. The hope-panic-irony cycle makes the market rise over time only for those not riding the emotocycle.

* The abstraction of future pain and foolish willingness to fall in love is nicely summarized by the late Sam Kinnison.

Jack Tierney adds:

I was invited to a dinner party but expected very little. The guests were getting thin on top and hefty through the middle. Our host was dressed in colors that defy the known spectrum and civility was to be shown the greatest horse's rectum. So we mingled and we spoke and mentioned our positions. I mooted that I was all in cash and was swarmed by five physicians. "Perhaps an evil humor attacked him on his flight or maybe he's an infidel who has yet to see the light." Their concern was very real and they needed to be consoled so I admitted that in addition I owned a little gold. Screams and wails followed and the panic gained momentum.

To quell the crowd I shouted, "Wait, I also own argentum." Now that they were fully aware of these judgmental flaws they ripped away my velvet gloves and exposed my hairy paws. They marched me toward the door when the host yelled out to quit, "Why this poor benighted soul has never heard of drift."

So began my lessons and I've brought them to the south, a bearish thought may cross your mind but never cross your mouth.

Abe Dunkelheit adds:

 Bruno's post was very interesting. I made exactly the same observation. Market timing lowers volatility but doesn't guarantee any substantial out performance. And yes, one's first ideas tend to be much better researched than all these other in and out decisions. Never to sell them would have turned out the best in my personal case also.

And there seem to be people who don't make any professional impression and live a very retired life who tend to buy and hold and accumulate incredible returns without doing much.

I know about a guy in Switzerland who was retired and did it with wine. He bought all these Chateau Mouton Rothschild wines for USD 500 a bottle 10 years ago and they now go for USD 10,000 at auction because rap stars and Russian mafia are pushing prices up. I only know about this guy because I was one of the sellers. I had bought my bottles for USD 300 and thought a cool 60% gain in less than two years could not be wrong. He had an incredible cellar with all these wines, but his house and car and his whole appearance were very modest.

Another example I know about is a guy who was jobless and lived on social security, but had saved several hundred thousand euros [back then deutschmarks] and invested them through the accounts of his children. He put it all into Deutsche Telecom at the IPO and cashed in a 600% profit during the Internet boom. That was his one and only investment.


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