My Personal Investing Notes
Several people have asked me about investing recently, and it prompted me to dig up a list of tips and takeaways I had compiled for myself and eventually more shareable formats to add with many others. I was deep into my personal quest for building on my financial literacy – that I was lucky to have been exposed to at an early age thanks to my dad, easy access to the internet, and ample free time.
About 1.5 years into the high stress corporate grind I was putting in at Level 3 Communications (now CenturyLink), I distinctly remember feeling trapped by the $70k student loan debt standing between me and a potential future dream job of becoming a full-time musician, or at least something more related to what I had gone to school for, International Relations.
The income was good, and so was the opportunity – that I would never want to undo – but it came at a high cost of health and happiness in the long term. I was at this point tracking my loan balance weekly and aggressively paying it off. Not to mention it was growing at a 6.8% interest rate, or about $5,000 per year just to keep it from growing higher on its own!
Any prospect of attaining economic freedom in my lifetime seemed out of sight, which was ironic given that a bachelors degree was also likely the only way of landing a job that would pay enough to pay it off (or at least 10 years ago). I became stubbornly frugal with my monthly expenses and budgeted my income out into $10 increments.
Throughout that time, I was learning everything I could to find a way out of the rat race.
Although my perspective on the market and economy as a whole have changed much since the time they were taken, the notes below contain some fundamental practices and principles that any investor should consider to avoid blindly guessing or gambling with money.
This book surely shaped my views on money, investing, and the global economy:
Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money
Below are my biggest takeaways from arguably the best book ever written on investing: The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham.
- 1. Invest in commission-free low-cost index Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) in a tax-protected Roth IRA (Vanguard is good place to start).
- 2. Invest, if you can, only with nonprofit mutual fund companies. if you must work with profit-making entities, they should be privately owned. If forced to work with a financial services company that belongs to a publicly traded parent, buy only those products that come with the lowest expenses and turnover; this usually means exchange-traded funds
- 3. Rebalance every few years
- 4. Only by insisting on what Graham called the “margin of safety”—never overpaying, no matter how exciting an investment seems to be—can you minimize your odds of error.
- 5. How your investments behave is much less important than how you behave.
- 6. “Obvious prospects for physical growth in a business do not translate into obvious profits for investors.” While it seems easy to foresee which industry will grow the fastest, that foresight has no real value if most other investors are already expecting the same thing. By the time everyone decides that a given industry is “obviously” the best one to invest in, the prices of its stocks have been bid up so high that its future returns have nowhere to go but down.
- 7. An investment operation is one that, upon thorough analysis promises safety of principal and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.”
- 8. He may be wrong in his estimate of the future; or even if he is right, the current market price may already fully reflect what he is anticipating. In the area of near-term selectivity, the current year’s results of the company are generally common property on Wall Street; next year’s results, to the extent they are predictable, are already being carefully considered. Hence the investor who selects issues chiefly on the basis of this year’s superior results, or on what he is told he may expect for next year, is likely to find that others have done the same thing for the same reason.
- 9. A speculator gambles that a stock will go up in price because somebody else will pay even more for it.
- 10. Graham urges you to invest only if you would be comfortable owning a stock even if you had no way of knowing its daily share price
- 11. Speculating in the market is the worst imaginable way to build your wealth. That’s because Wall Street has calibrated the odds so that the house always prevails, in the end, against everyone who tries to beat the house at its own speculative game.
- 12. Never put more than 10% of your assets into your mad money account, no matter what happens.
- 13. Seek out a well-diversified mutual fund specializing in the stocks of precious-metal companies and charging below 1% in annual expenses. Limit your stake to 2% of your total financial assets
- 14. Don’t finance things that depreciate (cars)
- 15. Find stocks that regularly increase their dividends
- 16. While mild inflation allows companies to pass the increased costs of their own raw materials on to customers, high inflation wreaks havoc—forcing customers to slash their purchases and depressing activity throughout the economy.
- 17. The best choice is Vanguard REIT Index Fund; other relatively low-cost choices include Cohen & Steers Realty Shares, Columbia Real Estate Equity Fund, and Fidelity Real Estate Investment Fund.
- 18. If interest rates rise, bond prices fall—although a short-term bond falls far less than a long-term bond. On the other hand, if interest rates fall, bond prices rise—and a long-term bond will outperform shorter ones.
- 19. P/E or price/earnings ratios, which measure how much investors are willing to pay for a stock compared to the profitability of the underlying business.
- 20. Buying IPOs is a bad idea because it flagrantly violates one of Graham’s most fundamental rules: No matter how many other people want to buy a stock, you should buy only if the stock is a cheap way to own a desirable business.
- 21. http://www.morningstar.com/
- 22. The enterprising investor should concentrate on the larger companies that are going through a period of unpopularity. The large companies thus have a double advantage over the others. First, they have the resources in capital and brainpower to carry them through adversity and back to a satisfactory earnings base. Second, the market is likely to respond with reasonable speed to any improvement shown.
- 23. Require an indication of at least reasonable stability of earnings over the past decade or more—i.e., no year of earnings deficit—plus sufficient size and financial strength to meet possible setbacks in the future. The ideal combination here is thus that of a large and prominent company selling both well below its past average price and its past average price/earnings multiplier.
- 24. Growth stocks are worth buying when their prices are reasonable, but when their price/earnings ratios go much above 25 or 30 the odds get ugly
- 25. “The relatively unpopular large company.” – This kind of temporary unpopularity can create lasting wealth by enabling you to buy a great company at a good price.
- 26. Putting up to a third of your stock money in mutual funds that hold foreign stocks (including those in emerging markets) helps insure against the risk that our own backyard may not always be the best place in the world to invest.
- 27. To see whether a stock is selling for less than the value of net working capital (what Graham’s followers call “net nets”), download or request the most recent quarterly or annual report from the company’s website or from the EDGAR database at www.sec.gov. From the company’s current assets, subtract its total liabilities, including any preferred stock and long-term debt. As of October 31, 2002, for instance, Comverse Technology had $2.4 billion in current assets and $1.0 billion in total liabilities, giving it $1.4 billion in net working capital. With fewer than 190 million shares of stock, and a stock price under $8 per share, Comverse had a total market capitalization of just under $1.4 billion. With the stock priced at no more than the value of Comverse’s cash and inventories, the company’s ongoing business was essentially selling for nothing.
- 28. Let’s say you can spare $500 a month. By owning and dollar-cost averaging into just three index funds—$300 into one that holds the total U.S. stock market, $100 into one that holds foreign stocks, and $100 into one that holds U.S. bonds—you can ensure that you own almost every investment on the planet that’s worth owning.
- 29. It is not just possible, but probable, that most of the stocks you own will gain at least 50% from their lowest price and lose at least 33% from their highest price—regardless of which A stock does not become a sound investment merely because it can be bought at close to its asset
- 30. The investor should demand, in addition, a satisfactory ratio of earnings to price, a sufficiently strong financial position, and the prospect that its earnings will at least be maintained over the years
- 31. The speculator’s primary interest lies in anticipating and profiting from market fluctuations. The investor’s primary interest lies in acquiring and holding suitable securities at suitable prices.
- 32. On the whole it may be better for the investor to do his stock buying whenever he has money to put in stocks, except when the general market level is much higher than can be justified by well-established standards of value.
- 33. Aside from forecasting the movements of the general market, much effort and ability are directed on Wall Street toward selecting stocks or industrial groups that in matter of price will “do better” than the rest over a fairly short period in the future. Logical as this endeavor may seem, we do not believe it is suited to the needs or temperament of the true investor—particularly since he would be competing with a large number of stock-market traders and first-class financial analysts who are trying to do the same thing. As in all other activities that emphasize price movements first and underlying values second, the work of many intelligent minds constantly engaged in this field tends to be self-neutralizing and self-defeating over the years.
- 34. Never buy a stock immediately after a substantial rise or sell one immediately after a substantial drop.
- 35. When asked what keeps most individual investors from succeeding, Graham had a concise answer: “The primary cause of failure is that they pay too much attention to what the stock market is doing currently.”
- 36. You can’t control whether the stocks or funds you buy will outperform the market today, next week, this month, or this year; in the short run, your returns will always be hostage to Mr. Market and his whims.
- 37. But you can control:
- Your brokerage costs, by trading rarely, patiently, and cheaply
- Your ownership costs, by refusing to buy mutual funds with excessive annual expenses
- Your expectations, by using realism, not fantasy, to forecast your
- Your risk, by deciding how much of your total assets to put at
- hazard in the stock market, by diversifying, and by rebalancing
- Your tax bills, by holding stocks for at least one year and, whenever
- possible, for at least five years, to lower your capital-gains liability
- and, most of all, your own behavior.
- 38. The longer and further stocks fall, and the more steadily you keep buying as they drop, the more money you will make in the end—if you remain steadfast until the end.