Impulse control

I expect you’ve heard of the Marshmallow Test. It’s the one where you leave a four-year child alone for a few minutes in a room with a marshmallow on the table, promising further rewards if they can restrain themselves from eating it. After initially trying to hold out for the reward, most four-year-olds find the immediacy of the marshmallow too much to bear. The interesting part of the original Marshmallow Test, carried out in Stanford in the late 1960s, is that the children who gobbled up the marshmallow generally went on to do worse in life according to various measures. Like many psychology experiments, there is a fair amount of controversy around what the Marshmallow Test actually shows. It could demonstrate that an ability to be patient and exercise self-control is a crucial life skill, or alternatively it may be that some other unobserved factors were at play (e.g. socioeconomic background, intelligence, trust). I don’t think it takes a huge leap of faith to believe that patience is an important life-skill. One area where I’m pretty confident that gobbling up marshmallows is likely to cost you is in investing. Continue reading

Benchmarks for valuing growth

When making investment decisions, I focus much more on whether a business is high quality than on its valuation. However, I don’t think this means that valuations should be ignored entirely. Sometimes even high quality businesses become overvalued. In practice I am often put off buying businesses where the valuation doesn’t seem to be justified by the growth prospects. But I’ve found this very hard to judge – am I getting it right? Continue reading

Are corporate profits sustainable?

Next time your investments are on a roll and you catch yourself feeling the familiar symptoms of overconfidence, I recommend you check out the Hussman Fund’s market commentary. I’ve found the relentlessly bearish perspective put forward in all of Hussman’s articles to be a sobering antidote to any euphoria I might be feeling at the time. I disagree with some of the reasoning and certainly with the conclusions, but he does raise an issue that piqued my interest and is the subject of this post. Aggregate corporate profit margins are about as high as they’ve ever been. How sustainable is this?

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Tea leaves and entrails

I could feel the uncomfortable prickling of sweat on my back as I peered through the smoke at my host. The scrawny tattooed shaman was excitedly prodding at the embers of the now-extinguished fire and etching out strange patterns in the sand with a burnt bit of stick. Every so often he would look up at me and solemnly utter incomprehensible phrases, waiting for me to acknowledge with a nod. I could pick out a few words from his unfamiliar dialect: ‘candlestick’, ‘shoulders’. However, I did not understand their meaning. My guide had warned me not to question the shaman as he worked. The guide would translate for me later.

After a few minutes of this the shaman began to get agitated. He had carved out a large cross into the ground and was repeating the same phrase again and again, looking up at me with a troubled but imploring expression. I looked at my guide who was also starting to look worried: ‘he says there is a Death Cross. Bad news coming. Maybe the Fed. We must go. Now’

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A behavioural perspective

This post is a sequel to one I wrote a few weeks ago about the ‘external perspective’. As I said then, I think it’s important to challenge yourself by looking at investing from different perspectives. I’ve found that this can be a useful way of gleaning insight. I want to follow up my previous post by looking at a more fundamental question for which there are also multiple perspectives: ‘how should you think about your investing strategy?’ Continue reading

About time

My mechanical portfolio experiment has got me thinking more about the dimension of time. Investing is basically a race, more of a marathon than a sprint, but a race nonetheless. Like all races, minimising the time taken to get from A to B is the thing that matters the most. If you didn’t care how long it took to generate returns, you would keep your money in a low risk savings account. We all understand this, but we often don’t pay so much attention to the time dimension in practice. Thinking about the time dimension more explicitly can help you to deal with a notoriously difficult part of investing strategy – how frequently and in what circumstances should you sell?

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Lessons from the mechanical portfolio

I questioned whether I should be running a more mechanical system back in January.  At the time I decided I wasn’t quite ready to hand over the controls to my portfolio just yet, but would set up a mechanical benchmark portfolio to track my performance against. It’s too early to reach any conclusions but the early signs for the mechanical portfolio are good – it’s been on quite a tear this year so far. Continue reading