Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Featured Posting: GMO's James Montier: Seven Immutable Laws of Investing

From John Mauldin's Outside the box article (You can subscribe to the article here: http://www.johnmauldin.com/outsidethebox/the-seven-immutable-laws-of-investing - Free lah) feature's GMO's James Montier piece this week.

  • The Seven Immutable Laws of Investing

    James Montier

    In my previous missive I concluded that investors should stay true to the principles that have always guided (and should always guide) sensible investment, but I left readers hanging as to what I believe those principles might actually be. So, now, for the moment of truth, I present a set of principles that together form what I call The Seven Immutable Laws of Investing.

    They are as follows:

    1. Always insist on a margin of safety
    2. This time is never different
    3. Be patient and wait for the fat pitch
    4. Be contrarian
    5. Risk is the permanent loss of capital, never a number
    6. Be leery of leverage
    7. Never invest in something you don’t understand

I like 3,5,6,7

LOL! I know.. how can I leave out MoS? Well I find the Margin Of Safety so badly abused nowadays but that's my flawed opinion. Don't get misunderstood. It's not that I think MoS is flawed, in fact I agree with it but like I said, it's so badly abused by investors who tweaks the MoS to their own requirement.

Anyway, here's James Montier No.3, 5, 6 and 7.

3. Be Patient and Wait for the Fat Pitch

Patience is integral to any value-based approach on many levels. As Ben Graham wrote, “Undervaluations caused by neglect or prejudice may persist for an inconveniently long time, and the same applies to inflated prices caused by over-enthusiasm or artificial stimulants.” (And there can be little doubt that Mr. Market’s love affair with equities is based on anything other than artificial stimulants!)

However, patience is in rare supply. As Keynes noted long ago, “Compared with their predecessors, modern investors concentrate too much on annual, quarterly, or even monthly valuations of what they hold, and on capital appreciation… and too little on immediate yield … and intrinsic worth.” If we replace Keynes’s “quarterly” and “monthly” with “daily” and “minute-by-minute,” then we have today’s world.

Patience is also required when investors are faced with an unappealing opportunity set. Many investors seem to suffer from an “action bias” – a desire to do something. However, when there is nothing to do, the best plan is usually to do nothing. Stand at the plate and wait for the fat pitch.

5. Risk Is the Permanent Loss of Capital, Never a Number

I have written on this subject many times. In essence, and regrettably, the obsession with the quantification of risk (beta, standard deviation, VaR) has replaced a more fundamental, intuitive, and important approach to the subject. Risk clearly isn’t a number. It is a multifaceted concept, and it is foolhardy to try to reduce it to a single figure.

To my mind, the permanent impairment of capital can arise from three sources: 1) valuation risk – you pay too much for an asset; 2) fundamental risk – there are underlying problems with the asset that you are buying (aka value traps); and 3) financing risk – leverage.

By concentrating on these aspects of risk, I suspect that investors would be considerably better served in avoiding the permanent impairment of their capital.

6. Be Leery of Leverage

Leverage is a dangerous beast. It can’t ever turn a bad investment good, but it can turn a good investment bad. Simply piling leverage onto an investment with a small return doesn’t transform it into a good idea. Leverage has a darker side from a value perspective as well: it has the potential to turn a good investment into a bad one! Leverage can limit your staying power and transform a temporary impairment (i.e., price volatility) into a permanent impairment of capital.

While on the subject of leverage, I should note the way in which so-called financial innovation is more often than not just thinly veiled leverage. As J.K. Galbraith put it, “The world of finance hails the invention of the wheel over and over again, often in a slightly more unstable version.” Anyone with familiarity of the junk bond debacle of the late 80s/early 90s couldn’t have helped but see the striking parallels with the mortgage alchemy of recent years! Whenever you see a financial product or strategy with its foundations in leverage, your first reaction should be skepticism, not delight.

7. Never Invest in Something You Don’t Understand

This seems to be just good old, plain common sense. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The financial industry has perfected the art of turning the simple into the complex, and in doing so managed to extract fees for itself! If you can’t see through the investment concept and get to the heart of the process, then you probably shouldn’t be investing in it.