August 2010

What works in investing? I don’t mean that question the obvious way-that it’s a place where people buy and sell stocks through brokers. What I mean is how you think stock prices are really set. What is your mental model of how prices are decided?

A flawed mental model can lead to some interesting conclusions. For example, in the early days of email, a friend of a mine believed that if you reduced the font size in an email message, then the message would become smaller and therefore easier to send. It was a flawed mental model, or rather, was the fax mental model being applied to email.

I believe one of the fundamental reasons why so many people have trouble investing in the stock markets is that they have severely flawed mental models of what determines a stock price. While there are many mental models of how the stock markets work, some are more common than others.

This is the most widespread one: ‘There are people who know when a stock’s price is about to rise. If one of them tells me, then I can make money.’ This is the ‘tip’ model of the stock markets. It isn’t so much a mental model as the lack of one. Unfortunately, this is a very common one. There seem to be a lot of people who believe that someone out there knows which way things will move and everything depends on somehow getting to know these secrets.

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This is a fairly long read, most of you will leave before you reach halfway and say “I know the ropes, I know the game and I know the rules, what the heck is this guy talking about?” If you think this is a load of crap and you are a master, get off my site and go invest all your money, I know jolly well that you know nothing. Oh yeah! before you go make sure to bookmark this page, you will need to read it when the damage is done. Ask 8 out of 10 people why they invested in a particular stock, the answers will be like “Its a great stock and besides most of my friends have invested too.” The truth is they don’t have a clue. If you do happen to read till the end, I’d love to hear from you.  Assuming I have your attention and interest, please read on.

It is important to be independent in our decisions to invest, and be able to evaluate and understand the companies that we are considering for potential investment. In this article, I want to share with you some of the things that I look at when deciding if a stock is a good investment or not.

To pick out a stock that will create good long-term value for its shareholders, investors need to look at the sales figure to see if it is growing at a healthy rate long-term.

Investors should, however, make sure that the company is not over-aggressive in its expansion and taking on too much debt; spreading itself too thin. Investors should also make sure that the company is not in the habit of regularly issuing new stock to fund its growth, as this kind of activities will dilute the holdings of shareholders. The best companies are usually the ones that can mostly or fully fund their expansion from internally generated funds.

Investors also shouldn’t overpay for stocks with high growth rates, as this will put investors in a situation where they find themselves with big losses because a high-growth company they bought shares in missed earnings estimates by 0.1% or something.

It is important to figure out if the growth rate of the company is sustainable by reading the annual report for information on growth and looking at the industry the company is in, as well as the size of the company in relation to the size of its largest competitors. A company doing $8 billion dollars in sales in a mature industry where its biggest competitor is only doing $10 billion dollars in sales generally can’t grow much and shouldn’t have too high a rate of growth.
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Most people enter the investment arena thinking that “Risk” is a board game they played in college. Today, I would guess that the majority of investors have never owned an individual share of common stock or a Municipal Bond.

The popularity of investment products has heightened the risk for all investors and has indirectly led to many of the policy errors that threaten both capitalism and the economic fabric of America. Market prices are increasingly and inappropriately influenced by decision-making based only on the derivatives that contain them.

Few people consider the investment risk associated with public policy decisions. Product investors and derivative speculators participate in less personal markets, where it is more difficult to connect the dots between their personal financial interests and their political alignments.

So in a very real sense, investors have to deal with public policy risk every bit as much as they need to analyze the risks associated with the securities and other financial products they hold in their portfolios — complicated, but it is doable.

Apart from these important peripheral considerations, the risk of loss in any equity investment is generally greater than the risk of loss in any debt related instrument. The potential reward from each type is just the opposite, and that’s where all the excitement begins.

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“October is one of the particularly dangerous months to invest in stocks. Other dangerous months are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February.” Mark Twain

Image Courtsey
“You should always live within your income, even if you have to borrow to do so.” J Billings.

“I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something.” – Jackie Mason

“The financial markets generally are unpredictable. So that one has to have different scenarios.. The idea that you can actually predict what’s going to happen contradicts my way of looking at the market.” – GeorgeSoros.

“When buying shares, ask yourself, would you buy the whole company?” – Rene Rivki.

“I made my money the old fashioned way. I was very nice to a wealthy relative right before he died.” – Malcolm Forbes

“I‘m so naive about finances. Once when my mother mentioned an amount and I realized I didn’t understand, she had to explain: ‘That’s like three Mercedes.’ Then I understood”. – Brooke Shields

“There’s no reason to be the richest man in the cemetery. You can’t do any business from there”. – Colonel Sanders

A man explained inflation to his wife thus: “When we married, you measured 36-24-36. Now you’re 42-42-42. There’s more of you, but you are not worth as much.” – Lord Barnett.

Every morning I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I’m not there, I go to work. – Robert Orben.

Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination. – Oscar Wilde

Boaters run aground by not paying attention to tides, charts, navigation tools and their GPSes. Investors get swamped with information, media noise, breaking news, politicians, gurus, and derivatives — so much so that they can’t see the oncoming fog banks and tsunamis of cyclical change.

Most investment mistakes are caused by basic misunderstandings of the securities markets and by invalid performance expectations. Losing money on an investment may not be the result of an investment sandbar and not all mistakes in judgment result in broken propellers.

Errors occur most frequently when judgment is rocked out of the boat by emotion, hindsight, and misconceptions about how securities react to waves of varying economic, political, and hysterical circumstances. You are the commander of your investment fleet. Use these ten risk-minimizers as lifeboats:

1. Identify realistic goals that include time, risk-tolerance, and future income requirements — chart your course before you leave the pier. A well thought out plan will minimize tacking maneuvers. A well-captained plan will not need trendy hardware or exotic rigging.

2. Learn to distinguish between asset allocation and diversification. Asset allocation divides the portfolio between equity and income securities. Diversification limits the size of individual holdings in several ways. Both hedge against the risk of loss. Both are done best using a cost based approach.

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