Our country loves the “Horatio Alger” story – the old rags to riches. In our culture, one of the most popular narratives to riches is through being a great investor.* If I can figure out the market, I’ll be able to see something others don’t and it will make me wealthy. Warren Buffett is the hero of this story. I poured through his biography (The Snowball, 832 pages!) when it came out looking for secrets and clues. One potentially controversial belief I’ve developed:
I don’t believe being a “great investor” is a reasonable path to wealth.
We need to let go of the myth that we are one hot stock tip away from financial success. This narrative is baked into our entire culture. TV networks like CNBC and Fox Business are built on this myth (Here is the 8 best TV shows ranked by a website dedicated to investors). Entire print industries (Money magazine, financial help books) have this narrative intertwined in their unspoken promise to the reader.
I’m convinced it doesn’t work and in fact it’s a massive waste of time and distraction from actually accumulating wealth. Why? Here are three of many reasons:
- Not enough initial capital
A friend of mine recent came and asked for some advice on which stock to buy with a $1,000. I didn’t have the courage to tell them it didn’t matter. Warren Buffett, the wealthiest person in America and perhaps the best investor in our history has earned around 20% compounded return. Maybe you’re a better investor then Warren Buffett, but if you’re as good as him in 10 years your $1,000 will be worth $7,268.
The point is that most of us don’t have enough upfront capital to take advantage of outsized returns, even if we were to get them. Does this mean we shouldn’t save or make wise investments? Of course not. It should pop the bubble that I’m only one key investment away from financial freedom.
There is a huge separation between how it feels for my $1,000 to be up (or God forbid down) 8 points this morning and the actual impact that will have on my life. That’s why some of the best investors don’t follow the market or invest in individual stocks. That’s why it “doesn’t matter”. There are a dozen other more important financial decisions each month that will affect my financial future far more than the short term fluctuations a $1,000 investment.
- Have to live on the returns
My dad went to a three-day seminar on how to use stock shorts and options to make a killing in the market. One major problem (beside the fact that nobody actually “beat’s the market”) is that if my dad did this from home he’d still have to pay for his regular living expense from his earnings. For example, if he earned 20% on a huge sum of money like $250k, he would clear about $50,000 in income before taxes. The problem is that he’d use most of that money up, you know, eating and stuff. It would make it almost impossible to actually accumulate wealth unless you had your living expenses covered by an actual income or you had some amount of money large enough ($2M+) that $50k wasn’t a significant deduction from returns.
Another example. People have asked me about real estate investing. I think it’s a wonderful investment, but unless you have a significant amount of capital don’t plan on making a living doing it for many years. It’s a great side job, but if you’re living on the returns it’s a poor way to accumulate wealth. In fact, almost everyone I know that has done well in real estate has done it by working (improving, changing use, managing, etc.) rather then passive investing.
- Not really an expert
This one hurts a little. My pride tends to try to convince me that I know more then I really do. I’ve noticed that the professional investors from books like The Big Short and The Snowball spend a tremendous amount of time and attention learning their craft inside and out. I know several professional investors personally, and I’m continually taken aback by how much they put into understanding each investment. Even after exhaustive consideration, they build investment models around the inherent acknowledgement that they will be wrong some of the time.
If someone says you should invest in such-and-such because the kids are using it or something, I beg you to stay away. Virtually all public information is trash. One of the core tenants of all investing is “Invest in what you know”. Being honest about what I really know isn’t easy, but it will save me a lot of dashed expectations and refocus me back on activities that pay huge dividends.
Next week: If you aren’t going to waste time/effort/dashed expectations chasing the next great investing tip, what should you do instead?