Value Investing

Following Investment Advice: Part I

Dear Friends,

I am republishing some old pieces from my days at RealMoney during this busy time that I am in.  If there are significant changes in my opinion since it was first published, I will spell out the changes.  As for this series, there are none.

Originally published 3/24/2004


Investment Advice


You have to trust your investment adviser.

Look closely at the track record, too.

You want realistic advice you can use.


Advice bombards all investors. Some is good, some is bad, and much of it is indifferent. In this three-part column, I’ll show how to use the advice you receive so you can be a more effective investor. In analyzing any advice, investors have to consider the adviser, personal character issues, and the nature of the investment proposed. In Part 1 today, I’ll focus on the adviser.

Sought-After Qualities

The first issue is always one of trust: Do you trust the competence and business ethics of the adviser? No one is perfect, but has the adviser made sound decisions in the past in areas similar to where the adviser is proposing advice now? What’s the adviser’s track record? If he’s a professional, does he have a clean record with the regulators and his current and past clients?

Even if the adviser has a great track record, did he get it accidentally? In a past job, I had the fun of interviewing a large number of money managers. We had a need for a large-cap growth manager, and our manager adviser brought in a manager who had a stellar, though short, track record.

The principal of the growth manager was a former pro athlete who had developed an entirely quantitative, momentum-driven management method. The presentation was short, and I asked a few questions about earnings quality and how the process might do in nongrowth-driven markets. I received a very terse set of “we can do no wrong” answers.

After the presentation ended, I pointed out three companies in their portfolio that I knew had weak earnings quality. They politely blew me off. I wasn’t impressed with their processes, and my colleagues were not impressed with their demeanor. Then I had my accident; the next week, two of the companies I pointed out blew up. Their accident followed soon after, which was a significant loss of assets under management. The accident of their prior performance evaporated. Persistent good performance happens for the reasons that the adviser specifies in advance, not by accident.

Even if the advice giver is competent and ethical, what incentives does he have in the situation? Full disclosure allows you to decide whether the adviser’s judgment might be shaded by other concerns. Then you can take that into account in making your decision.

Is the adviser cocky? In my experience, pride goes before a fall. One way to measure this is to see whether the adviser admits to errors. The best advisers admit fallibility, and even try to reduce your expectations. You want realistic advice from someone you can trust. Big claims may draw some clients in the short run, but in the long run, clients are kept through dependability.

Next time, in Part 2, I’ll examine how your character affects how you evaluate the investment advice you get.

By David Merkel, CFA of Aleph Blog