Investing with ‘Crayons’
At one level, investing can be extremely challenging if you consider the plethora of diverse and unpredictable factors such as monetary policy, fiscal policy, wars, banking crises, natural disasters, currency crises, geopolitical turmoil, Ebola, Scottish referendums, etc. On the other hand, investing (not trading or speculating) should be quite simple…like drawing stick figures with a crayon. However, simplicity does not mean laziness. Successful stock research requires rigorous due diligence without cutting corners. Once the heavy research lifting is completed, concise communication is always preferred.
In order to be succinct, investors need to understand the key drivers of stock performance. In the short run, investors may not be able to draw the directional path of stock prices, but over the long run, Peter Lynch described stock predictions best (see Inside the Investing Genius) when he stated:
“People may bet on hourly wiggles of the market but it’s the earnings that waggle the wiggle long term.”
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In other words, if revenues, earnings, and most importantly cash flows go up over the long-term, then it is highly likely that stock prices will follow. Besides profits, interest rates and sentiment are other key contributing factors affecting the trajectory of future stock prices.
In high school and college, students often cram as much information into a paper with the goal of layering pages as high as possible. Typically, the heaviest papers got A’s and the lightest papers got C’s or D’s. However, as it relates to stock analysis, the opposite holds true – brevity reigns supreme.
American psychologist and philosopher William James noted, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
In our digital world of informational overload, knowing what to overlook is quite a challenge. I experienced this dynamic firsthand early on in my professional career when I was an investment analyst. When asked to research a new stock by my portfolio manager, often my inclination was to throw in the data kitchen sink into my report. Rather than boil down the report to three or four critical stock-driving factors, I defaulted to a plan of including every possible risk factor, competitor, and valuation metric. This strategy was designed primarily as a defense mechanism to hedge against a wide range of possible outcomes, whether those outcomes were probable or very unlikely. Often, stuffing irrelevant information into reports resulted in ineffectual, non-committal opinions, which could provide cosmetic wiggle room for me to rationalize any future upward or downward movement in the stock price.
Lynch understood as well as anyone that stock investing does not have to be complex rocket science:
“Everyone has the brainpower to follow the stock market. If you made it through fifth-grade math, you can do it.”
In fact, when Lynch worked with investment analysts, he ran a three-minute timer and forced the analysts to pitch stock ideas in basic terms before the timer expired.
If you went back further in time, legendary Value guru Benjamin Graham also understood brain surgery is not required to conduct successful equity analysis:
“People don’t need extraordinary insight or intelligence. What they need most is the character to adopt simple rules and stick to them.”
Similarly, Warren Buffett hammers home the idea that a gargantuan report or extravagant explanation isn’t required in equity research:
“You should be able to explain why you bought a stock in a paragraph.”
Hedge fund veteran manager Michael Steinhardt held the belief that a stock recommendation should be elegant in its simplicity as well. In his book No Bull: My Life In and Out of Markets he states that an analyst “should be able to tell me in two minutes, four things: 1) the idea; 2) the consensus view; 3) his variant perception; and 4) a trigger event.
All these previously mentioned exceptional investors highlight the basic truth of equity investing. A long, type-written report inundated with confusing charts and irrelevant data is counterproductive to the investment and portfolio management process. Outlining a stock investment thesis is much more powerful when succinctly written with a crayon.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own a range of positions in certain exchange traded fund positions, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.