On Prognostication

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|We tend to brag about our most recent brilliant investment while conveniently forgetting our more frequent whiffs.|

Chapter eleven from the first book of essays by Michel de Montaigne serves as a welcome reminder that some truths are beyond debate. A minor noble, occasional public servant and prolific reader Montaigne began writing short works of critical self-reflection around 1570. He referred to these works as essays and, effectively, created a novel genre. (As a side note, 400 years later the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges would, effectively, perfect the essay.) 

The title of chapter eleven is deceptively perfect as it relates to our theme herein, investing. This brief essay covers two important topics often overlooked by individual investors; survivorship bias and forecasting. As to the first, we’ll quote Montaigne, “Besides, no one keeps a record of their mistakes, inasmuch as these are ordinary and numberless; and their correct divinations are made much of as they are rare, incredible and prodigious.” As has been often reflected upon here at Invest-Notes, when reviewing every stock transition I’ve made over a 12-month period, the many bad trades are inevitably left in the dark, overshadowed by the occasional big winner. We tend to brag about our most recent brilliant investment while conveniently forgetting our more frequent whiffs.

Millionaire-Next-DoorThe glaring error in an otherwise interesting book on the wealthy, The Millionaire Next Door, is this failure to acknowledge the losers. We meet a few very successful businessmen, owners of dry cleaners, who have quietly amassed meaningful fortunes. But no mention is made of the thousands of dry cleaners who not only didn’t make a million dollars but went broke trying. Montaigne tells the story of a skeptic in ancient Greece shown a chapel filled with votive offerings from sailors who survived shipwrecks to prove the beneficence of the gods. The skeptic observes, “Those who were drowned, in much greater numbers, are not portrayed here.”

More importantly, we talk about the records of Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch though never discuss the vast majority of professional investors who went broke or settled into quiet mediocrity. There is a reason books that discuss the “habits of super successful investors” all seem to talk about the same people. Not that many people are successful over a meaningful period of time. Of course, there are big winners, but always remember that the losers are “numberless.” Only with hindsight do we know who survived. This applies equally to individual stocks and hedge funds – no one talks about the ones who didn’t make it.

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“…there is no use in knowing what is to be, for it is wretched to be tormented to no purpose.” -Cicero

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PrognosticationAs to forecasting, we should all know better. The idea that we can tell what is going to happen to the price of any individual stock over a period of a few months is self-deceptive. An analysis showing where a stock price will be 5-years from now is a lie. It has been demonstrated that over meaningful lengths of time the equity markets go up more often than they go down, so while dips can be ferocious, recovery has proven a relatively safe expectation. But this is based on the movement of a cohort of equities, not an individual stock.

As Nassim Taleb has said repeatedly, if the author of that glowing 5-year analysis doesn’t have at least half his net worth invested in the stock under discussion don’t believe anything being said.

The follow-on is our tendency to look at how much we can make instead of how much we can lose. Yes, there is money to be made if an investment increases in value. But when a company you invest in goes bankrupt (as recently happened to me with a private equity deal) being able to write-off the loss is small consolation. At the time I did the deal it never occurred to me that a total loss of invested capital was a possibility. But the lesson learned was a confirmation of one of the most important rules when investing; never make a bet so big that a loss can leave you with a permanent impairment of capital. While painful, and embarrassing, financially there is no change to my lifestyle or future prospects.

So, since we can never know the future we must avoid prognostication. Because when our bets on future outcomes start going off track, or derail completely, the best we can do is reflect wistfully on what might have been. This, in turn, can lead us to fear the future. What if we are wrong again? Opportunity becomes something to be feared, best to avoid. Instead, focus on the here-and-now, what we know and not what might be. I’ll be doing more private equity deals but now with a focus on risks, not just rewards.

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