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Investing is hard

THE ABOVE IS A SENTIMENT I HAVE REPEATED IN MY BLOG TOO MANY times to count. It never ceases to amaze me how even the most sophisticated investors can so often get caught with their proverbial pants down. For any number of reasons, sophisticated investors make fundamental mistakes, often out of overconfidence, that belie their high status. We see it all the time — investors get sucked into (in hindsight) obvious Ponzi schemes, or blow up their portfolios through the abuse of leverage, or invest in vehicles so complex that they did not understand them to begin with.

Investor overconfidence manifests itself in other ways as well. The media is rife with so-called market gurus or pundits that are quick to make bold forecasts with little or no thought of how investors will use, and likely abuse, their advice. Dan Gardner, in his book Future Babble, notes that the media craves these “confident and conclusive” forecasts because it makes for a better story.

The implicit assumption is to let the viewers themselves deal with the consequences of poor forecasts.

When the best investors — the ones that other investors talk about in hushed tones — make public market pronouncements, they are much more circumspect in their use of language than the “gurus.” They talk about probabilities, possibilities, and alternative scenarios, not absolutes. They recognize that the financial markets, especially in the turbulent age in which we live, are not hospitable to definitive statements.

If there is one overriding theme in this book, it is that we all need to approach the markets and our investments with a sense of

 humility. The reasons are twofold. It is the height of hubris to think that we can say with a great deal of certainty how global markets function. Our knowledge of the markets is slender compared with their complexity.

Second and more important, our ability to understand and control our own actions is limited. Investors since time immemorial have been slapping themselves on the forehead after a bad trade, muttering, “stupid, stupid, stupid!” While the financial markets have become increasingly global and complex, human nature has remained stubbornly stuck in an age when stocks and bonds had not yet been invented.

If investing is hard even for professional investors, what chance do individual investors have? As adults in today's society, we are largely set adrift in the investment world with little in the way of guidance or objective advice. Whether you are saving for your retirement or a child's education or are simply looking to build a better life, you need to possess some basic investment skills. Some argue that traditional investing is in a certain sense dead.

 Investing isn't dead, but the odds are currently stacked against us all. Whatever the odds, we still need to make an effort to save and invest for our futures.

What does that entail? The vast majority, let's say 99%, of Americans don't want to be active traders glued to their computer screens throughout the day. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with trading. We just need to recognize that most people are focused on other things: building a career, maintaining their health insurance, or funding their 401(k) plans. They aren't traders. They are trying to earn a modest return on their hard-earned savings. When it comes to your investments, you certainly don't need to have all the answers. No one does, but you do need to be able to ask the right questions.

The good thing is that your needs are not likely unique. Therefore, some straightforward investment education should serve you well. A mutual fund insider writes: “The fact of the matter is that good, basic investment advice doesn't need to be customized to any large extent. Setting someone on the road to investment success requires, first and foremost, nothing more than implementing some very basic, general principles. Keep costs low. Diversify broadly. Find an asset allocation you'll be comfortable with over the long term, and for crying out loud leave it alone.”

 We will discuss those principles, but we should

 also recognize that the challenge often arises not with the plan, but with the planner.

From the discussion so far, you should have some sense that this book is not going to provide you with the “secret” to investing success. This is because there is no secret. Our goals are much more modest. For most investors, investment mediocrity is an eminently achievable and worthy goal. The great thing is that investment mediocrity is now easier and cheaper to accomplish than at any other time in history.

Some might say that investment mediocrity is an unworthy goal. And that may be true, because who wants to be mediocre? In today's winner-take-all society, this sort of attitude is an anathema. However, a quick review of what it takes to be an outstanding investor might persuade you that mediocrity is not shooting too low.

The skills involved in becoming an accomplished investor are not easily acquired in the classroom, although that is as good a place to start as any other. Great investors exhibit an interest in finance, accounting, history, and psychology, to name but a few topics, and to that you can add a heavy dose of self-awareness. To a large degree, these skills are acquired over time through hard work and good old-fashioned hard knocks. This description from Barry Ritholtz, is apt, “Great investors are savvy generalists.”

 Robert G. Hagstrom describes investing as “the last liberal art.”

 To get downright philosophical, Michael J. Mauboussin discusses the importance of consilience, or linking principles across disciplines, to help one become a better investor.

If we take this a step further and try and put a figure on just how many investors possess the skills necessary to invest successfully, we get some bleak numbers. William J. Bernstein came up with a pessimistic estimate of the number of capable investors as 1 in 10,000.

 Even if you fiddle with these estimates, you still are likely to arrive at only a small fraction of people who are truly proficient in the field of money management. In that light, becoming a merely competent investor seems like a worthy goal.

This does not mean that investors should throw up their hands and give up. While investing is a challenge, its mastery is also an opportunity. If you are reading this book, you recognize the importance of trying to gain a measure of investing skills. The opportunity lies not only in potential financial gains, but rather the confidence

 in knowing you have the ability to manage your own portfolio. That ability is a lifelong asset that can pay for itself many times over.

There is also another aspect that is quite enticing. There are few arenas in which an amateur can compete against professionals on an equal footing. In the financial markets, that is the reality with nearly every trade. Some would surely argue that the playing field isn't level; but in the end, for every buy there is a sell, and on the other side of a trade is likely a professional investor — although today the other side of the trade is just as likely to be a computerized trading algorithm.

The other prominent arena in which amateurs take on professionals directly is poker. Events like the World Series of Poker allow amateur players to go up against the pros, for a price of course. The entry fee into the WSOP Main Event is currently $10,000. For that buy-in, you can compete at the same table with the pros. Going up against the best poker players in the world has to be for amateurs both anxiety inducing and a tremendous thrill.

That being said, investing and trading shouldn't be too thrilling. Investing should in fact be boring. The clichéd view of investing is one of frenetic trading and wild market action. A look at the best traders and investors at work would likely show you a very different picture. You probably couldn't tell from their demeanor whether they were up big or down big on the day.

This idea of making investing boring is an important one, in part because it touches on the responsibilities of those who write about investing. The Latin phrase primum non nocere is translated as “First, do no harm.”

 This is a longstanding principle of medical ethics that directs doctors to do no harm to a patient in trying to heal them.

The same ethos should be applied to investing as well, leaving aside the issue of whether most strategies presented to investors actually work or even make sense. Most investment books present strategies and tactics to investors that, if misapplied, are likely to do an investor more harm than good. The challenges facing investors are already numerous enough. We don't need to add the potential misapplication of investment advice to the list. The counterargument being that people are responsible adults and should understand the risks inherent in any investment strategy.

That is a shortsighted argument in my opinion. The biggest challenges facing investors of all types are not necessarily the hard issues

 we commonly think of, like the global economy, the Fed's latest moves, or the trend in corporate earnings. Rather they are psychological and emotional. The point is that analysts, and the books they write, should focus on simplifying and clarifying ideas in an attempt to make life easier for investors, instead of tempting them into the latest hot strategy. Life is too short to add complexity to our lives when simplicity is a far more sustainable strategy.

For that reason, this book should be read more as an exploration of a series of investment topics as opposed to some sort of doctrinaire investment philosophy. As noted earlier, a humble approach to the markets is the only one that matches the reality of investing. Investment strategies perform best when they match the personality of the individual implementing them. We often can't say that one investment strategy is right or that another is wrong. Any strategy may be right or wrong for an individual given the person's outlook, experience, and goals.

Simplicity does not come easily for anyone who follows the markets on a regular basis. It is deceptively easy to get caught up in the day-to-day goings-on in the markets. The breathless tone of financial television and the bold headlines of the investment blogosphere all lead you to believe that the next piece of news or the next opinion is the most important thing you will hear all day. In the end, they aren't selling news or analysis but rather a sense that you are in on the action.

Many of the fears that market participants have turn out to be either unfounded, of temporary importance, or far less critical than originally thought. This building, and rebuilding, of the proverbial “wall of worry” is an ongoing feature of the financial markets. Still, of course, there are times when the market's fears turn out to be well founded. Anyone who lived through the financial crisis of 2007–2009 now recognizes that the global financial system came very close to running completely off the rails.

The market is therefore generating and rejecting hypotheses on a continuing basis. My job as a blogger is to try and sort through the noise and extract some semblance of a signal from the flow of news. This curation process parallels my motivation for writing this book. The ideas and concepts I discuss are ones that keep jumping out at me in the process of my daily blogging. When putting together the plan for this book, these ideas came to me quickly, probably because I have spent years immersed in them.

That is not to say that I view these ideas with any proprietary interest. Rather the concepts that follow are best thought of as “things I think I think.” As with all investment boilerplate, I reserve the right to change my mind at a moment's notice given sufficient evidence to the contrary.

When I first started blogging some 6 years ago, what feels like 60 in blog years, I created for my blog, Abnormal Returns, the tagline “A wide-ranging, forecast-free blog.” Over thousands of blog posts, that tagline has stuck. I haven't changed it partly because I didn't have the time to craft a smarter one, but also because it still reflects the ethos of the blog. In light of the tagline, the structure and content of this book should not be surprising.

We are going to range over the entire landscape of investing, with an emphasis on concepts that, it is hoped, stand up to some rigor but also have a half-life in excess of the current news cycle. We will start with a look at the building blocks of investing — risk and return. We will then explore the characteristics of the main asset classes — equities and fixed income. Next we will turn our attention to how investors put portfolios together and how investors might attempt to outperform the market.

We then examine three big decade-long trends that have permanently changed investing. First we note how the introduction of exchange-traded funds has dramatically changed the way we invest. Next we investigate the increasingly global nature of investing. Last we look at the rise of alternative asset classes that investors use in an attempt to create a better risk-return trade-off.

In the final section of the book, we look more at the ways in which we can become better investors. First we take a closer look at some ways we can try and combat the many behavioral biases we all possess. Second we focus on how we all can become smarter consumers of financial media. In conclusion we are able to draw some broader lessons from what has been a difficult decade, some say a lost decade, for investors.

Whether we want to admit or not, we are all already in the midst of an investing journey. It usually starts off with low stakes but builds quietly and quickly into an important adult responsibility. It's not a sprint. It's a marathon. The only way you can win, let alone finish, a marathon is to get off the couch and stay on course.

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