speculative investing -- 10/14/15

Today's selection -- from The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham. Benjamin Graham legendary investor and mentor to Warren Buffett, tells us in this time-tested and widely-read book that "An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis promises safety of principal and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative". Here we see some famous examples from the 1990s of speculative investing.

"Confusing speculation with investment, Graham warns, is always a mistake. In the 1990s, that confusion led to mass destruction. Almost everyone, it seems, ran out of patience at once, and America became the Speculation Nation, populated with traders who went shooting from stock to stock like grasshoppers whizzing around in an August hay field.

"People began believing that the test of an investment technique was simply whether it 'worked'. If they beat the market over any period, no matter how dangerous or dumb their tactics, people boasted that they were 'right.' But the intelligent investor has no interest in being temporarily right. To reach your long-term financial goals, you must be sustainably and reliably right. The techniques that became so trendy in the 1990s -- day trading, ignoring diversification, flipping hot mutual funds, following stock-picking 'systems' -- seemed to work. But they had no chance of prevailing in the long run ...

"To see why temporarily high returns don't prove anything, imagine that two places are 130 miles apart. If I observe the 65-mph speed limit, I can drive that distance in two hours. But if I drive 130 mph, I can get there in one hour. If I try this and survive, am I 'right'? Should you be tempted to try it, too, because you hear me bragging that it 'worked'? Rashy gimmicks for beating the market are much the same: In short streaks, so long as your luck holds out, they work. Over time, they will get you killed.

"In 1973, when Graham last revised The Intelligent Investor, the annual turnover rate on the New York Stock Exchange was 20%, meaning that the typical shareholder held a stock for five years before selling it. By 2002, the turnover rate had hit 105% -- a holding period of only 11.4 months. Back in 1973, the average mutual fund held on to a stock for nearly three years; by 2002, that ownership period had shrunk to just 10.9 months. It's as if mutual-fund managers were studying their stocks just long enough to learn they shouldn't have bought them in the first place, then promptly dumping them and starting all over.

"Even the most respected money-management firms got antsy. In early 1995, Jeffrey Vinik, manager of Fidelity Magellan (then the world's largest mutual fund), had 42.5% of its assets in technology stocks. Vinik proclaimed that most of his shareholders 'have invested in the fund for goals that are years away. ... I think their objectives are the same as mine, and that they believe, as I do, that a long-term approach is best.' But six months after he wrote those high-minded words, Vinik sold off almost all his technology shares, unloading nearly $19 billion worth in eight frenzied weeks. So much for the 'long term'! And by 1999, Fidelity's discount brokerage division was egging on its clients to trade anywhere, anytime, using a Palm handheld computer, which was perfectly in tune with the firm's new slogan, 'Every second counts.' ...

"In 1999, shares in Puma Technology, for instance, changed hands an average of once every 5.7 days. Despite NASDAQ's grandiose motto -- 'The Stock Market for the Next Hundred Years' -- many of its customers could barely hold on to a stock for a hundred hours.

"Wall Street made online trading sound like an instant way to mint money: Discover Brokerage, the online arm of the venerable firm of Morgan Stanley, ran a TV commercial in which a scruffy tow-truck driver picks up a prosperous-looking executive. Spotting a photo of a tropical beachfront posted on the dashboard, the executive asks, 'Vacation?' 'Actually,' replies the driver, 'that's my home.' Taken aback, the suit says, 'Looks like an island.' With quiet triumph, the driver answers, 'Technically, it's a country.'

"The propaganda went further. Online trading would take no work and require no thought. A television ad from Ameritrade, the online broker, showed two housewives just back from jogging; one logs on to her computer, clicks the mouse a few times, and exults, 'I think I just made about $1,700!' In a TV commercial for the Waterhouse brokerage firm, someone asked basketball coach Phil Jackson, 'You know anything about the trade?' His answer: 'I'm going to make it right now.'(How many games would Jackson's NBA teams have won if he had brought that philosophy to courtside? Somehow, knowing nothing about the other team, but saying, 'I'm ready to play them right now,' doesn't sound like a championship formula.)

By 1999 at least six million people were trading online -- and roughly a tenth of them were 'day trading,' using the Internet to buy and sell stocks at lightning speed. Everyone from showbiz diva Barbra Streisand to Nicholas Birbas, a 25-year-old former waiter in Queens, New York, was flinging stocks around like live coals. 'Before,' scoffed Birbas, 'I was investing for the long term and I found out that it was not smart.' Now, Birbas traded stocks up to 10 times a day and expected to earn $100,000 in a year. 'I can't stand to see red in my profit-or-loas column,' Streisand shuddered in an interview with Fortune. 'I'm Taurus the bull, so I react to red. If I see red, I sell my stocks quickly.'


Benjamin Graham


The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel




First Collins Business Essentials edition 2006


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