Charles Ellis: Winning The Loser’s Game by Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®, Investing Caffeine
Posted January 2011
Besides hanging out with family and friends, and stuffing my face with endless amounts of food, the other benefit of the holidays is the quality time I’m afforded to dive into a few books. While sinking into the couch in my bloated state, I had the pleasure of reading an incredible, investment classic by Charles Ellis, Winning the Loser’s Game – “WTLG” (click here to view other remarkable book I read [non-investment related]). To put my enthusiasm in perspective, WTLG has even achieved the elite and privileged distinction of making the distinguished “Recommended Reading” list of Investing Caffeine (located along the right-side of the page). Wow…now I know you must be really impressed.
The Man, The Myth, the Ellis
For those not familiar with Charley Ellis, he has a long, storied investment career. Not only has he authored 12 books, including compilations on Goldman Sachs (GS) and Capital Group, but his professional career dates back prior to 1972, when he founded institutional consulting firm Greenwich Associates. Besides earning a college degree from Yale University, and an MBA from Harvard Business School, he also garnered a PhD from New York University. Ellis also is a director at the Vanguard Group and served as Investment Committee chair at Yale University along investment great David Swensen (read also Super Swensen) from 1992 – 2008.
With this tremendous investment experience come tremendous insights. The original book, which was published in 1998, is already worth its weight in gold (even at $1,384 per ounce), but the fifth edition of WTLG is even more valuable because it has been updated with Ellis’s perspectives on the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Because the breadth of topics covered is so vast and indispensable, I will break the WTLG review into a few parts for digestibility. I will start off with the these hand-picked nuggets:
Defining the “Loser’s Game”
Here is how Charles Ellis describes the investment “loser’s game”:
“For professional investors, “the ‘money game’ we call investment management evolved in recent decades from a winner’s game to a loser’s game because a basic change has occurred in the investment environment: The market came to be dominated in the 1970s and 1980s by the very institutions that were striving to win by outperforming the market. No longer is the active investment manager competing with cautious custodians or amateurs who are out of touch with the market. Now he or she competes with other hardworking investment experts in a loser’s game where the secret to winning is to lose less than others lose.”
Underperformance by Active Managers
Readers that have followed Investing Caffeine for a while understand how I feel about passive (low-cost do-nothing strategy) and active management (portfolio managers constantly buying and selling) – read Darts, Monkeys & Pros. Ellis’s views are not a whole lot different than mine – here is what he has to say while not holding back any punches:
“The basic assumption that most institutional investors can outperform the market is false. The institutions are the market. They cannot, as a group, outperform themselves. In fact, given the cost of active management – fees, commissions, market impact of big transactions, and so forth-85 percent of investment managers have and will continue over the long term to underperform the overall market.”
He goes on to say individuals do even worse, especially those that day trade, which he calls a “sucker’s game.”
Exceptions to the Rule
Ellis’s bias towards passive management is clear because “over the long term 85 percent of active managers fall short of the market. And it’s nearly impossible to figure out ahead of time which managers will make it into the top 15 percent.” He does, however, acknowledge there is a minority of professionals that can beat the market by making fewer mistakes or taking advantage of others’ mistakes. Ellis advocates a slow approach to investing, which bases “decisions on research with a long-term focus that will catch other investors obsessing about the short term and cavitating – producing bubbles.” This is the strategy and approach I aim to achieve.
Gaining an Unfair Competitive Advantage
According to Ellis, there are four ways to gain an unfair competitive advantage in the investment world:
1) Physical Approach: Beat others by carrying heavier brief cases and working longer hours.
2) Intellectual Approach: Outperform by thinking more deeply and further out in the future.
3) Calm-Rational Approach: Ellis describes this path to success as “benign neglect” – a method that beats the others by ignoring both favorable and adverse market conditions, which may lead to suboptimal decisions.
4) Join ‘em Approach: The easiest way to beat active managers is to invest through index funds. If you can’t beat index funds, then join ‘em.
The Case for Stocks
Investor time horizon plays a large role on asset allocation, but time is on investors’ side for long-term equity investors:
“That’s why in the long term, the risks are clearly lowest for stocks, but in the short term, the risks are just as clearly highest for stocks.”
Expanding on that point, Ellis points out the following:
“Any funds that will stay invested for 10 years or longer should be in stocks. Any funds that will be invested for less than two to three years should be in “cash” or money market instruments.”
While many people may feel stock investing is dead, but Ellis points out that equities should return more in the long-run:
“There must be a higher rate of return on stocks to persuade investors to accept risks of equity investing.”
The Power of Regression to the Mean
Investors do more damage to performance by chasing winners and punishing losers because they lose the powerful benefits of “regression to the mean.” Ellis describes this tendency for behavior to move toward an average as “a persistently powerful phenomenon in physics and sociology – and in investing.” He goes on to add, good investors know “that the farther current events are away from the mean at the center of the bell curve, the stronger the forces of reversion, or regression, to the mean, are pulling the current data toward the center.”
The Power of Compounding
For a 75 year period (roughly 1925 – 2000) analyzed by Ellis, he determines $1 invested in stocks would have grown to $105.96, if dividends were not reinvested. If, however, dividends are reinvested, the power of compounding kicks in significantly. For the same 75 year period, the equivalent $1 would have grown to $2,591.79 – almost 25x’s more than the other method (see also Penny Saved is Billion Earned).
Ellis throws in another compounding example:
“Remember that if investments increase by 7 percent per annum after income tax, they will double every 10 years, so $1 million can become $1 billion in 100 years (before adjusting for inflation).”
The Lessons of History
As philosopher George Santayana stated – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Details of every market are different, but as Ellis notes, “The major characteristics of markets are remarkably similar over time.”
Ellis appreciates the importance of history plays in analyzing the markets:
“The more you study market history, the better; the more you know about how securities markets have behaved in the past, the more you’ll understand their true nature and how they probably will behave