My Basic Investing Tenets

 | Mar 22, 2013 | 12:00 PM EDT  | Comments
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This commentary originally appeared at 8:28 a.m. EDT on March 22 on Real Money Pro -- for access to all of legendary hedge fund manager Doug Kass's strategies and commentaries, click here.

"You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going because you might not get there."

-- Yogi Berra

Arguably, the investment and asset-allocation processes can hold more weight and is more complex than nearly any other business decision. A host of variables, known and unknown, contribute to the investment alchemy. As well, subtle and unconscious influences and personal biases affect the process as we all seek Mr. Market's metaphorical green jacket (like the one to be given to the winner of the Masters golf tournament in mid-April).

What follows are some basic tenets which form my investment consciousness, which are admittedly simple to write about but more difficult to execute.

Know Thyself, Work Hard, and Don't Get Emotional

  • If you don't know yourself, Wall Street is a poor place to find yourself. There is a reason why there was a church on one side of the old New York Stock Exchange building and a cemetery on the other.
  • If you enter the hedge fund biz, remember Darwin. It is survival of the fittest, the smartest and the most practical. The hedge fund industry is populated by some of the most obsessive and idiosyncratic practitioners extant, most of whom are highly educated and possessive of a greater-than-normal cerebellum. Differentiate yourself by your process and by routinely working harder than anyone else (e.g., my day routinely starts at 5:00 a.m.). As John Maxwell wrote, "Successful and unsuccessful people do not vary greatly in their abilities; they vary in their desires to reach their potential."
  • Do not get emotional in making investments, and however eloquent the strategy is, it is the results that count. The ecstasy of getting investment performance right is always eclipsed by the agony of getting it wrong. If you are uncertain or temporarily lack confidence, raise your cash positions.

The Investment Process Is Methodical

  • If you are a fundamentalist, write a brief synopsis of each investment analysis/conclusion. It will serve to crystallize your investment analysis, and it is an excellent personal and investment discipline. (It is the principle reason why I write my diary.) Moreover, an ex post facto reflection on why one achieved past success or failures is usually illuminating, instructive and often leads to fewer mistakes. After all, as philosopher Benjamin Disraeli once wrote, "What we have learned from history is that we haven't learned from history."
  • If you are a technician, keep all your charts, just as the fundamentalist should write up a summary of each investment. Reflecting on past mistakes/successes is as important to a technician as it is to a fundamentalist.
  • A combination of mostly fundamental and a dose of technical input is usually a recipe for investment success.
  • Regardless of one's modus operandi (fundamental, technical or a combination of both), logic of argument and power of dissection are the two most important ingredients in delivering superior investment returns. Common sense, which is not so common, runs a close third!

Stay Objective and Independent

  • Neither be a Cassandra nor a Sunshine Boy! It is much easier to be critical than to be correct, as financial disasters are always impending by the ursine crowd. Conversely, the outlook is never as perfect or clear as it is seen by the bullish cabal.
  • Within limits, stay independent in view. Above all, remember equilibrium is rarely observed in the stock market. To quote George Soros, "Participants perceptions are inherently flawed" (at least to varying degrees).

Investment Discipline Is Key

  • Let your profits run and, and press your winners, as knowing when to seize opportunity is one of the basic principles to investing. But stop your losses, as discipline always should trump conviction. Edwin Lefevre wrote in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, "I did precisely the wrong thing. The cotton showed me a loss and I kept it. The wheat showed me a profit and I sold it out. Of all the speculative blunders there are few greater than trying to average a losing game. Always sell what shows you a loss and keep what shows you a profit." Woody Allen put it even better, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

The Past Is Not Necessarily Prologue to the Future

  • History should be a guide but not a jailer. There is little permanent truth in the financial markets as change is as inevitable as it is constant. Do not extrapolate the trend in fundamentals in your company analysis nor in the trend in stock prices. Be independent of analytical and investment conclusions, greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy, but always remember that possessing a variant view has outsized risk as well as outsized reward.

Risk and Reward Should Be Assessed Properly

  • In buying a stock remember risk/reward is asymmetric. A long can climb to indefinite heights and one can only lose 100% of the value of each investment. (Buy value but only with a catalyst.) When longs have high short interest ratios, investigate the bear case completely.
  • In shorting a stock, remember risk/reward is asymmetric. A short can only return 100% (a bankruptcy) but can rise to indefinite heights. (Never make conceptual shorts without a catalyst.) Avoid shorts when the outstanding short interest exceeds five days of average trading volume.
  • Use leverage wisely but rarely as financial markets are inherently unstable. While the use of leverage can deliver superior investment returns when the wind is at your investments' back, it can also wipe you out when events fail to conform to your expectations. Only the best of the best consistently time the proper use of leverage.

Knowledge of Accounting Is a Must, but Meetings With Management Have Little Value

  • There is no substitute for a thorough knowledge of financial accounting. Accounting can be misleading, opaque and unaccountable, but free cash flow rarely lies.
  • If you must meet with management, do so to understand a company's core business but remember that managements infrequently, if ever, view their secular prospects with suspicion. In the late 1980s Warren Buffett wrote in his letter to Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A/BRK.B) shareholders that "corporate managers lie like Ministers of Finance on the eve of devaluation."

Be Open to Others' Ideas, but Rely on Your Own Analysis

  • Always be self-critical, and once your view is formulated, be open to criticism from others that you respect. Take their criticism and test your thesis (constantly). Avoid what G.K. Chesterton once mused, "I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite." Bullheadedness will get you into trouble in the investment world.

Only Invest/Trade When Distractions Are Limited

  • Invest/trade/speculate only if you are not dependent upon the investment profits to maintain your standard of living.
  • A stable personal and financial life, outside of investing, is typically a necessary ingredient to investment success.
  • Take vacations and smell the roses. When you return you will be rejuvenated and a better investor/trader.
  • Be well-rested and in good shape physically."Investing is 90% mental; the other half is physical" (another Yogi-ism).
  • Keep your investment expectations reasonable and expect to make mistakes as perfection is not attainable. Nevertheless, by all means, try to chase perfection as the byproduct will be investment excellence.

Read and Learn From the Best

  • Learn from those investors who have excelled by reading and re-reading the classic books on investing.

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