Tag: Investing

The Psychology of Risk and Reward

The Psychology of Risk and Reward

An excerpt from The Aspirational Investor: Taming the Markets to Achieve Your Life’s Goals that I think you’d enjoy.

Most of us have a healthy understanding of risk in the short term.

When crossing the street, for example, you would no doubt speed up to avoid an oncoming car that suddenly rounds the corner.

Humans are wired to survive: it’s a basic instinct that takes command almost instantly, enabling our brains to resolve ambiguity quickly so that we can take decisive action in the face of a threat.

The impulse to resolve ambiguity manifests itself in many ways and in many contexts, even those less fraught with danger. Glance at the (above) picture for no more than a couple of seconds. What do you see?

Some observers perceive the profile of a young woman with flowing hair, an elegant dress, and a bonnet. Others see the image of a woman stooped in old age with a wart on her large nose. Still others—in the gifted minority—are able to see both of the images simultaneously.

What is interesting about this illusion is that our brains instantly decide what image we are looking at, based on our first glance. If your initial glance was toward the vertical profile on the left-hand side, you were all but destined to see the image of the elegant young woman: it was just a matter of your brain interpreting every line in the picture according to the mental image that you already formed, even though each line can be interpreted in two different ways. Conversely, if your first glance fell on the central dark horizontal line that emphasizes the mouth and chin, your brain quickly formed an image of the older woman.

Regardless of your interpretation, your brain wasn’t confused. It simply decided what the picture was and filled in the missing pieces. Your brain resolved ambiguity and extracted order from conflicting information.

What does this have to do with decision making? Every bit of information can be interpreted differently according to our perspective. Ashvin Chhabra directs us to investing. I suggest you reframe this in the context of decision making in general.

Every trade has a seller and a buyer: your state of mind is paramount. If you are in a risk-averse mental framework, then you are likely to interpret a further fall in stocks as additional confirmation of your sell bias. If instead your framework is positive, you will interpret the same event as a buying opportunity.

The challenge of investing is compounded by the fact that our brains, which excel at resolving ambiguity in the face of a threat, are less well equipped to navigate the long term intelligently. Since none of us can predict the future, successful investing requires planning and discipline.

Unfortunately, when reason is in apparent conflict with our instincts—about markets or a “hot stock,” for example—it is our instincts that typically prevail. Our “reptilian brain” wins out over our “rational brain,” as it so often does in other facets of our lives. And as we have seen, investors trade too frequently, and often at the wrong time.

One way our brains resolve conflicting information is to seek out safety in numbers. In the animal kingdom, this is called “moving with the herd,” and it serves a very important purpose: helping to ensure survival. Just as a buffalo will try to stay with the herd in order to minimize its individual vulnerability to predators, we tend to feel safer and more confident investing alongside equally bullish investors in a rising market, and we tend to sell when everyone around us is doing the same. Even the so-called smart money falls prey to a herd mentality: one study, aptly titled “Thy Neighbor’s Portfolio,” found that professional mutual fund managers were more likely to buy or sell a particular stock if other managers in the same city were also buying or selling.

This comfort is costly. The surge in buying activity and the resulting bullish sentiment is self-reinforcing, propelling markets to react even faster. That leads to overvaluation and the inevitable crash when sentiment reverses. As we shall see, such booms and busts are characteristic of all financial markets, regardless of size, location, or even the era in which they exist.

Even though the role of instinct and human emotions in driving speculative bubbles has been well documented in popular books, newspapers, and magazines for hundreds of years, these factors were virtually ignored in conventional financial and economic models until the 1970s.

This is especially surprising given that, in 1951, a young PhD student from the University of Chicago, Harry Markowitz, published two very important papers. The first, entitled “Portfolio Selection,” published in the Journal of Finance, led to the creation of what we call modern portfolio theory, together with the widespread adoption of its important ideas such as asset allocation and diversification. It earned Harry Markowitz a Nobel Prize in Economics.

The second paper, entitled “The Utility of Wealth” and published in the prestigious Journal of Political Economy, was about the propensity of people to hold insurance (safety) and to buy lottery tickets at the same time. It delved deeper into the psychological aspects of investing but was largely forgotten for decades.

The field of behavioral finance really came into its own through the pioneering work of two academic psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who challenged conventional wisdom about how people make decisions involving risk. Their work garnered Kahneman the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Behavioral finance and neuroeconomics are relatively new fields of study that seek to identify and understand human behavior and decision making with regard to choices involving trade-offs between risk and reward. Of particular interest are the human biases that prevent individuals from making fully rational financial decisions in the face of uncertainty.

As behavioral economists have documented, our propensity for herd behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. Kahneman and Tversky, for example, showed that people who were asked to choose between a certain loss and a gamble, in which they could either lose more money or break even, would tend to choose the double down (that is, gamble to avoid the prospect of losses), a behavior the authors called “loss aversion.” Building on this work, Hersh Shefrin and Meir Statman, professors at the University of Santa Clara Leavey School of Business, have linked the propensity for loss aversion to investors’ tendency to hold losing investments too long and to sell winners too soon. They called this bias the disposition effect.

The lengthy list of behaviorally driven market effects often converge in an investor’s tale of woe. Overconfidence causes investors to hold concentrated portfolios and to trade excessively, behaviors that can destroy wealth. The illusion of control causes investors to overestimate the probability of success and underestimate risk because of familiarity—for example, causing investors to hold too much employer stock in their 401(k) plans, resulting in under-diversification. Cognitive dissonance causes us to ignore evidence that is contrary to our opinions, leading to myopic investing behavior. And the representativeness bias leads investors to assess risk and return based on superficial characteristics—for example, by assuming that shares of companies that make products you like are good investments.

Several other key behavioral biases come into play in the realm of investing. Framing can cause investors to make a decision based on how the question is worded and the choices presented. Anchoring often leads investors to unconsciously create a reference point, say for securities prices, and then adjust decisions or expectations with respect to that anchor. This bias might impede your ability to sell a losing stock, for example, in the false hope that you can earn your money back. Similarly, the endowment bias might lead you to overvalue a stock that you own and thus hold on to the position too long. And regret aversion may lead you to avoid taking a tough action for fear that it will turn out badly. This can lead to decision paralysis in the wake of a market crash, even though, statistically, it is a good buying opportunity.

Behavioral finance has generated plenty of debate. Some observers have hailed the field as revolutionary; others bemoan the discipline’s seeming lack of a transcendent, unifying theory. This much is clear: behavioral finance treats biases as mistakes that, in academic parlance, prevent investors from thinking “rationally” and cause them to hold “suboptimal” portfolios.

But is that really true? In investing, as in life, the answer is more complex than it appears. Effective decision making requires us to balance our “reptilian brain,” which governs instinctive thinking, with our “rational brain,” which is responsible for strategic thinking. Instinct must integrate with experience.

Put another way, behavioral biases are nothing more than a series of complex trade-offs between risk and reward. When the stock market is taking off, for example, a failure to rebalance by selling winners is considered a mistake. The same goes for a failure to add to a position in a plummeting market. That’s because conventional finance theory assumes markets to be inherently stable, or “mean-reverting,” so most deviations from the historical rate of return are viewed as fluctuations that will revert to the mean, or self-correct, over time.

But what if a precipitous market drop is slicing into your peace of mind, affecting your sleep, your relationships, and your professional life? What if that assumption about markets reverting to the mean doesn’t hold true and you cannot afford to hold on for an extended period of time? In both cases, it might just be “rational” to sell and accept your losses precisely when investment theory says you should be buying. A concentrated bet might also make sense, if you possess the skill or knowledge to exploit an opportunity that others might not see, even if it flies in the face of conventional diversification principles.

Of course, the time to create decision rules for extreme market scenarios and concentrated bets is when you are building your investment strategy, not in the middle of a market crisis or at the moment a high-risk, high-reward opportunity from a former business partner lands on your desk and gives you an adrenaline jolt. A disciplined process for managing risk in relation to a clear set of goals will enable you to use the insights offered by behavioral finance to your advantage, rather than fall prey to the common pitfalls. This is one of the central insights of the Wealth Allocation Framework. But before we can put these insights to practical use, we need to understand the true nature of financial markets.

Keeping Things Simple and Tuning out Folly

Keeping things simple makes a huge difference and yet we are drawn to the sexiness of complexity. Einstein was a master of sifting the essential from the non-essential.

And consider this from Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor:

Peter Bevelin’s book Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger has a section on the importance of simplicity.

Bevelin advised: “Turn complicated problems into simple ones. Break down a problem into its components, but look at the problem holistically.” Keeping things as simple as possible, but no more so, is a constant theme in Munger’s public statements. In a joint letter to shareholders, Munger and Buffett once wrote: “Simplicity has a way of improving performance through enabling us to better understand what we are doing.”

[…]

By focusing on finding decisions and bets that are easy, avoiding what is hard, and stripping away anything that is extraneous, Munger believes that an investor can make better decisions. By “tuning out folly” and swatting away unimportant things “so your mind isn’t cluttered with them … you’re better able to pick up a few sensible things to do,” said Munger. Focus enables both simplicity and clarity of thought, which in Munger’s view leads to a more positive investing result.

“If something is too hard, we move on to something else. What could be simpler than that?”

— Charlie Munger

There is a compelling advantage in life to be found in exploiting unrecognized simplicities, something Peter Thiel tries to tease out in interviews. Essential to recognizing simplicity is scheduling time to think.

“We have three baskets: in, out, and too tough… We have to have a special insight, or we’ll put it in the too tough basket.”

— Charlie Munger

Simplicity is Filtering

William James said: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” And there are no truer words that have been spoken.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Reigate Puzzle, Sherlock Holmes says: “It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital.”

And part of filtering is understanding what you know and what you don’t know, that is, understanding your circle of competence.

“We have a passion for keeping things simple.”

— Charlie Munger

In an interview with Jason Zweig, Munger said:

Confucius said that real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance. Aristotle and Socrates said the same thing. Is it a skill that can be taught or learned? It probably can, if you have enough of a stake riding on the outcome. Some people are extraordinarily good at knowing the limits of their knowledge, because they have to be. Think of somebody who’s been a professional tightrope walker for 20 years—and has survived. He couldn’t survive as a tightrope walker for 20 years unless he knows exactly what he knows and what he doesn’t know. He’s worked so hard at it, because he knows if he gets it wrong he won’t survive. The survivors know.

Another time he offered:

Part of that [having uncommon sense], I think, is being able to tune out folly, as distinguished from recognizing wisdom. You’ve got whole categories of things you just bat away so your brain isn’t cluttered with them. That way, you’re better able to pick up a few sensible things to do.

Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway agrees:

Yeah, we don’t consider many stupid things. I mean, we get rid of ’em fast.. Just getting rid of the nonsense — just figuring out that if people call you and say, “I’ve got this great, wonderful idea”, you don’t spend 10 minutes once you know in the first sentence that it isn’t a great, wonderful idea… Don’t be polite and go through the whole process.

And Peter Bevelin, writing in Seeking Wisdom, offers:

Often we try to get too much information, including misinformation, or information of no use to explain or predict. We also focus on details and what’s irrelevant or unknowable and overlook the obvious truths. Dealing with what’s important forces us to prioritize. There are often just a few actions that produce most of what we are trying to achieve. There are only a few decisions of real importance.

More information doesn’t equal more knowledge or better decisions. And remember that today we not only have access to more information, but also misinformation.

And the harder we work at something the more confident we become.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on three things at this point: 1) understanding and seeking simplicity; 2) dealing with the easy problems first; and 3) honing your skills by learning what to overlook and getting rid of bad ideas quickly (how many organizations do that!?)… this goes hand in hand with understanding your circle of competence.

Best Books for Investors: A Short Shelf

I’ve already outlined 12 books the sophisticated investor should read.

Now Jason Zweig, Knowledge Project Guest and author of Your Money and Your Brain, chimes in with the books he recommends for investors.

(If you’re not looking to be a practitioner, I’d recommend reading Buffettology, which is very under-appreciated).

Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them

In clear, simple prose, Belsky and Gilovich explain some of the most common quirks that cause people to make foolish financial decisions. If you read this book, you should be able to recognize most of them in yourself and have a fighting chance of counteracting some of them. Otherwise, you will end up learning about your cognitive shortcomings the hard way: at the Wall Street campus of the School of Hard Knocks.

Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

The late polymath Peter Bernstein poured a long lifetime of erudition and insight into this intellectual history of risk, luck, probability and the problems of trying to forecast what the future holds. Combining a stupendous depth of research with some of the most elegant prose ever written about finance, Bernstein chronicles the halting human march toward a better understanding of risk—and reminds us that, after centuries of progress, we still have a long way to go.

John C. Bogle, Common Sense on Mutual Funds

The founder of the Vanguard Group and father of the index-fund industry methodically sorts fact from fiction. Following his logical arguments can benefit you even if you never invest in a mutual fund, since Bogle touches on just about every crucial aspect of investing, including taxes, trading costs, diversification, performance measurement and the power of patience.

Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton, Triumph of the Optimists

Neither light reading nor cheap (it’s hard to find online for less than about $75), this book is the most thoughtful and objective analysis of the long-term returns on stocks, bonds, cash and inflation available anywhere, purged of the pom-pom waving and statistical biases that contaminate other books on the subject. The sober conclusion here: Stocks are likely, although not certain, to be the highest-performing asset over the long run. But if you overpay at the top of a bull market, your future returns on stocks will probably be poor.

Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! or What Do You Care What Other People Think?

These captivating oral histories of the great Nobel Prize-winning physicist ostensibly have nothing to do with investing. In my view, however, the three qualities an investor needs above all others are independence, skepticism and emotional self-control. Reading Feynman’s recollections of his career of intellectual discovery, you’ll see how hard he worked at honing his skepticism and learning to think for himself. You’ll also be inspired to try emulating him in your own way.

Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor

Originally published in 1949, called by Warren Buffett “by far the best book on investing ever written,” this handbook covers far more than just how to determine how much a company’s stock is worth. Graham discusses how to allocate your capital across stocks and bonds, how to analyze mutual funds, how to take inflation into account, how to think wisely about risk and, especially, how to understand yourself as an investor. After all, as Graham wrote, “the investor’s chief problem—and even his worst enemy—is likely to be himself.” (Disclosure: I edited the 2003 revised edition and receive a royalty on its sales.) Advanced readers can move on to Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, Security Analysis, the much longer masterpiece upon which The Intelligent Investor is based.

Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics

This puckish riff on how math can be manipulated is only 142 pages; most people could read it on a train ride or two, or in an afternoon at the beach. As light as the book is, however, it is nevertheless profound. In one short take after another, Huff picks apart the ways in which marketers use statistics, charts, graphics and other ways of presenting numbers to baffle and trick the public. The chapter “How to Talk Back to a Statistic” is a brilliant step-by-step guide to figuring out how someone is trying to deceive you with data.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Successful investing isn’t about outsmarting the next guy, but rather about minimizing your own stupidity. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2oo2, probably understands how the human mind works better than anyone else alive. This book can make you think more deeply about how you think than you ever thought possible. As Kahneman would be the first to say, that can’t inoculate you completely against your own flaws. But it can’t hurt, and it might well help. (Disclosure: I helped Kahneman research, write and edit the book, although I don’t earn any royalties from it.)

Charles P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes

In this classic, first published in 1978, the late financial economist Charles Kindleberger looks back at the South Sea Bubble, Ponzi schemes, banking crises and other mass disturbances of purportedly efficient markets. He explores the common features of market disruptions as they build and burst. If you remember nothing from the book other than Kindleberger’s quip, “There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich,” you are ahead of the game.

Roger Lowenstein, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist

This book remains the most comprehensive and illuminating study of Warren Buffett’s investing and analytical methods, covering his career in remarkable detail up until the mid-1990s. If you read it in conjunction with Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball, you will have a fuller grasp on what makes the world’s greatest investor tick.

Burton G. Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street

In this encyclopedic and lively book, Malkiel, a finance professor at Princeton University, bases his judgments on rigorous and objective analysis of long-term data. The first edition, published in 1973, is widely credited with helping foster the adoption of index funds. The latest edition casts a skeptical eye on technical analysis, “smart beta” and other market fashions.

Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays or The Scientific Outlook

Russell is Buffett’s favorite philosopher, and these short essay collections show why. Russell wrote beautifully and thought with crystalline clarity. Immersing yourself in his ideas will sharpen your own skepticism. My favorite passage: “When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man…. It is an odd fact that subjective certainty is inversely proportional to objective certainty. The less reason a man has to suppose himself in the right, the more vehemently he asserts that there is no doubt whatever that he is exactly right.” Think about that the next time a financial adviser begins a sentence with the words “Studies have proven that….”

Alice Schroeder, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

With unprecedented access to Buffett, Schroeder crafted a sensitive, personal and insightful profile, focusing even more on him as a person than as an investor—and detailing the remarkable sacrifices he made along the way. If you read it alongside Lowenstein’s Buffett, you will have an even deeper understanding of the master.

Fred Schwed, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?

First published in 1940, this is the funniest book ever written about investing—and one of the wisest. Schwed, a veteran of Wall Street who survived the Crash of 1929, knew exactly how the markets worked back then. Nothing has changed. Turning to any page at random, you will find gleefully sarcastic observations that ring at least as true today as they did three-quarters of a century ago. My favorite: “At the end of the day [fund managers] take all the money and throw it up in the air. Everything that sticks to the ceiling belongs to the clients.”

“Adam Smith,” The Money Game

In the late 1960s, the stock market was dominated by fast-talking, fast-trading young whizzes. The former money manager George J.W. Goodman, who wrote under the pen name “Adam Smith,” christened them “gunslingers.” In this marvelously entertaining book, Goodman skewers the pretensions, guesswork and sheer hogwash of professional money management. Reading his mockery can help sharpen your own skepticism toward the next great new investing idea—which almost certainly will turn out to be neither great nor new.

The Education of a Value Investor: A Quest for Wealth, Wisdom, and Enlightenment

I read Guy Spier’s book, The Education of a Value Investor: My Transformative Quest for Wealth, Wisdom, and Enlightenment, in a single sitting.

The section of the book I was most interested in reading was on his charity lunch with Warren Buffett. While details of what transpires at these lunches are fairly scant, there is a whole chapter on it in this book. I tore into that chapter first, eager to find out the pearl of wisdom that eluded me. Finding no secret, I flipped to the front and fell into the story.

I had the serendipitous pleasure of running into Guy at the Omaha airport earlier this year. What I loved about him – and his book – is that he’s open about his struggles. In a world where so many of us, myself included, are closed and guarded about things we don’t want other people to know or see, Guy is an open book. He has struggles. He’s human. He’s real. Things are not black and white. He didn’t come out of the womb fully formed with uncompromising ethics.

He’s a testament to the fact that we can make mistakes, admit them, and get better. We can change. We can even change our nature. We can find ourselves in compromising positions – be they professional, moral, or ethical – and recognize that we’ve made poor choices and find a better path forward. Guy is living proof that we can teeter on a moral cliff and change the path we are on. First, however, we must stop digging. That requires recognition that what we’re doing or about to do is wrong. “These moments of clarity are so rare in life,” he writes, “and even the people closest to us may question whether we should act on such instincts.” We only have a few of these moments in life, we must learn to recognize them and act. “If you’re going to do something, it’s best to commit to it with wholehearted gusto.”

And Guy did commit to changing himself. “When you begin to change yourself internally,” he writes, “the world around you responds.”

I hope this idea resonates because it’s important—more important, perhaps, than the fact that I had lunch with Warren Buffett. As I hope you can see from my experience, when your consciousness or mental attitude shifts, remarkable things begin to happen. That shift is the ultimate business tool and life tool.

But the question worth exploring at this point is how you go about changing yourself? It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? I want to change and poof. Change. It doesn’t work like that.

One lesson that Guy reinforces is that your environment matters to the decisions you make.

“It’s important,” he writes, “to discuss just how easy it is for any of us to get caught up in things that might seem unthinkable—to get sucked into the wrong environment and make more compromises that can tarnish us terribly.” While we think that we change our environment, it changes us.

Part of the problem (of working on Wall Street) was that the competition was so fierce. This led to the belief that, if I wasn’t willing to do something, someone else would quickly step in to do it. This kind of environment is perfectly designed to get people to push the boundaries in order to succeed. It’s a pattern that’s repeated again and again on Wall Street. Through ambition, greed, arrogance, or naïveté, many bright, hard-working people have strayed into grey areas.

One non-intuitive way to improve your environment is to choose the right teachers that have already discovered the truths you want to learn.

There is wisdom here that goes far beyond the narrow world of investing. What I’m about to tell you may be the single most important secret I’ve discovered in all my decades of studying and stumbling. If you truly apply this lesson, I’m certain that you will have a much better life, even if you ignore everything else I write.

What I stumbled upon was this. Desperate to figure out how to lead a life that was more like his, I began constantly to ask myself one simple question: “What would Warren Buffett do if he were in my shoes?”

I didn’t ask this question idly while sitting in a coffee shop sipping a cappuccino. No. I sat down at my desk and actively imagined that I was Buffett. I imagined what the first thing would be that he would do if he were in my shoes, sitting at my desk.

Self-help guru Tony Robbins calls this “modeling” our heroes. “The key,” Spier writes, “is to be as precise as possible, picturing them in as much detail as we can. A related technique that he teaches is called matching and mirroring, which might involve changing the way you move or even breathe to match the other person’s movement or breathing. In my experience, you start to feel what they feel, and you even start to think like them.”

A few other lessons from the book are worth noting, one of which is the fundamental nature of Guy’s approach to life (not investing.)

I’ve come to see that this is a smart strategy for life: whenever I have the choice of doing something with an uncertain but potentially high upside, I try to do it. The payoffs may be infrequent, but sometimes they are huge. And the more often I pick up these lottery tickets, the more likely I am to hit the jackpot.

Remind you of anyone? That’s an approach that Nassim Taleb employs. It’s also the one that investor Mohnish Pabrai describes in his book The Dhandho Investor: The Low-Risk Value Method to High Returns. As Pabrai puts it, “Heads I win. Tails, I don’t lose much.”

Another lesson is that small differences in behavior over time can lead to incredible impacts. Sending thank-you notes is A Simple Act of Gratitude, with profound benefits:

At first my letter-writing experiment was quite calculated, since I did it with an explicit desire to improve my business. I had a clear expectation of what the results would be. But it started to feel really good, and I became addicted to the positive emotions that this activity stirred in me. As I looked for more opportunities to thank people, I found that I truly did become more thankful. And the more I expressed goodwill, the more I began to feel it. There was something magical about this process of getting outside myself and focusing on other people.

[…]

In sending out this cascade of letters, I began to open up to people in a way that I never had before, and I started to see everyone around me as someone I can learn from. As I now understand, this habit of writing letters is an incredibly effective way of compounding goodwill and relationships instead of merely compounding money. Einstein is often said to have called compounding the eighth wonder of the world. But the narrow financial application of compounding may be the least valuable and least interesting aspect of this phenomenon.

In the end, the biggest lesson that I took away from meeting with Guy and reading his book is that we need to stop living our life through other people. I can play basketball every day for 18 hours, and I’m never going to be Michael Jordan. I can study financial reports until I’m blue in the face, and I’m never going to be the next Warren Buffett.

The Education of a Value Investor is an important reminder that the being who we are not who we are supposed to be matters. We need to do what is right for us, and that might not be what is right for others. We need to stop pretending to be other people and compromising our internal standards or ethics. We need to find who we are and how we want to live. “Instead of trying to compete with Buffett,” Guy writes, “I should focus on the real opportunity, which is to become the best version of Guy Spier that I can be.”

12 Books Every Investor Should Read

If you’re looking for something to read that will improve your ability as an investor, I’d recommend any of the books below. All 12 of them are deeply informative and will leave an impact on you.

1. The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham
Described as “by far the best book on investing ever written” by none other than Warren Buffett. “Chapters 8 and 20 have been the bedrock of my investing activities for more than 60 years,” he says. “I suggest that all investors read those chapters and reread them every time the market has been especially strong or weak.”

2. The Little Book that Beats the Market by Joel Greenblatt
As Buffett says, investing is simple but not easy. This book focuses on the simplicity of investing. Greenblatt, who has average annualized returns of about 40% for over 20 years, explains investing using 6th grade math and plain language. Putting it into practice is another story.

3. Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb
The core of Taleb’s other books — The Black Swan and Antifragile — can be found in this early work. One of the best parts, for me, was the notion of alternative histories. “Mother Nature,” he writes, “does not tell you how many holes there are on the roulette table.” This book teaches you how to look at the world probabilistically. After you start doing that, nothing is ever the same again.

4. The Most Important Thing by Howard Marks
“This is a rarity,” Buffett writes of Howard Marks’ book, “a useful book.” More than teaching you the keys to successful investment, it will teach you about critical thinking.

5. Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger
Charlie Munger is perhaps the smartest man I don’t know. This book is a curated collection of his speeches and talks that can’t help but leave you smarter. Munger’s wit and wisdom come across on every page. This book will improve your thinking and decisions. It will also shine light upon psychological forces that make you a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. Read and re-read.

6. Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits by Philip Fisher
Buffett used to say that he was 85% Benjamin Graham and 15% Phil Fisher. That was a long time ago, the Buffett of today resembles more Fisher than Graham. Maybe there is something to buying and holding great companies.

7. The Dao of Capital by Mark Spitznagel
Spitznagel presents the methodology of Austrian Investing, where one looks for positional advantage. Nassim Taleb, commenting on the book wrote: “At last, a real book by a real risk-taking practitioner. You cannot afford not to read this!”

8. Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstein
This book, perhaps more than any other, has changed the lives of many of my friends and investors because this is how many of them first discovered Warren Buffett and value investing.

9. The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success
An outstanding book detailing eight extraordinary CEOs and the unconventional methods they used for capital allocation. One of them, Henry Singleton, had a unique view on strategic planning.

10. The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence by Benoit Mandelbrot
A critique of modern finance theories, which usually gets built on the underlying assumption that distributions are normal. Nassim Taleb calls this “the most realistic finance book ever published.”

11. Why Stocks Go Up (and Down) by William Pike
This is a basics book on the fundamentals of equity and bond investing – financial statements, cash flows, etc. A good place to start on the nuts and bolts. If you’re looking to learn accounting also check out The Accounting Game: Basic Accounting Fresh from the Lemonade Stand, I’m serious. This is the book I recommended to classmates in business school with no accounting background to get them up to speed quickly.

12. Bull: A History of the Boom and Bust, 1982-2004 by Maggie Mahar
The first and perhaps best book written on the market’s historic run, which started in 1982 and ended in the early 2000s. Mahar reminds readers that euphoria and blindness are a regular part of bull markets – lessons we should have learned from studying history.

Keep in mind that if investing were as easy as buying a book and reading it, we’d all be rich.

The Timeless Parable of Mr. Market

There is no one better to explain the concept of Mr. Market than Warren Buffett, who has used to to make billions of dollars and remain calm when all around him were losing their heads.

In the 1987 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett unfolds the concept for us.

Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success. He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his.

Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market’s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions, he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him.

Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you.

But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don’t belong in the game. As they say in poker, “If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”

Ben’s Mr. Market allegory may seem out-of-date in today’s investment world, in which most professionals and academicians talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas. Their interest in such matters is understandable, since techniques shrouded in mystery clearly have value to the purveyor of investment advice. After all, what witch doctor has ever achieved fame and fortune by simply advising “Take two aspirins”?

The value of market esoterica to the consumer of investment advice is a different story. In my opinion, investment success will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets. Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the marketplace. In my own efforts to stay insulated, I have found it highly useful to keep Ben’s Mr. Market concept firmly in mind.

Following Ben’s teachings, Charlie and I let our marketable equities tell us by their operating results – not by their daily, or even yearly, price quotations – whether our investments are successful. The market may ignore business success for a while, but eventually will confirm it. As Ben said: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine.” The speed at which a business’s success is recognized, furthermore, is not that important as long as the company’s intrinsic value is increasing at a satisfactory rate. In fact, delayed recognition can be an advantage: It may give us the chance to buy more of a good thing at a bargain price.

Of course, this concept can be applied outside of stock markets as well.

“In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine.”

— Ben Graham

Mr. Market is a Farnam Street Mental Model.