Education, Education and Education

Education, education, education” were Tony Blair’s stated priorities for the country in 1997. Note for public speakers – the recital of words in groups of three always reinforces your message – for example, Veni, Vidi, Vici from Julius Caesar. In the current investment world, there is certainly a shortage of education so Blair’s phrase, which became very well known at the time, is worth remembering. Tony considered education was the key to future development in the country and the same applies to the investment world. The best investors never stop learning.

The recent growth in the number of retail stock market traders, particularly in the USA, is of major concern because many of them seem to lack education about the investment sphere. A recent article in the FT suggested that amateur “traders” were transforming markets and is certainly leading to higher volatility. Many such traders (it is doubtful that you should call them “investors”) were using fee-free platforms such as Robinhood and frequently buying on margin (i.e. increasing leverage by borrowing to finance a trade).

The FT article mentioned that in some weeks last year as much as half the trading in Apple was by retail investors, and many who have received cheques from the US Government as part of the economic stimulus in response to the Covid pandemic put the cash straight into the market. New retail investors are moving markets.

But they have a different mentality to traditional retail investors. They are more speculators than investors. As Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hatchaway has said  “The frenzy is fed by people getting commissions and other revenues out of this new bunch of gamblers, and, of course, when things get extreme, you have things like that short squeeze … and it’s really stupid to have a culture which encourages [so] much gambling in stocks by people who have the mindset of racetrack bettors and, of course, it will create trouble, as it did.”

Today I watched a couple of webinars which are relevant to this subject. Firstly I watched the ShareSoc AGM having missed attending the meeting when it took place. As the Chairman said, there is lots of supposed investment education on the web but it is mainly provided by people trying to sell you something. It is therefore good to hear that ShareSoc is putting a lot of effort into developing education materials. It was always the intention of ShareSoc from when it was founded exactly 10 years ago by me and others to provide education for retail investors. It has of course done that in many ways already but some more formalised material is probably needed. It does of course do a lot of good work in other areas such as on campaigns on particular issues. Please do join if you are not already a member – see:  https://www.sharesoc.org/membership/ . There is always more you can learn about the complex world of investment.

Another webinar I watched was the Fundsmith Annual Shareholder Meeting where manager Terry Smith answered questions – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IojZCeUjhRg . His comments at these annual events are always very educational (I do hold the fund). He makes some interesting comments on the events of last year when it was impossible to predict at the start of year what would happen in financial markets. But he still managed to achieve a return of over 18% for the Fundsmith Equity Fund, well ahead of the MSCI world equities index. Two simple tips from him were: don’t take profits but run with your winners, and Return on Capital is a very important financial measure for any company. Of course he has said that before but they are worth repeating.

Terry has some interesting comments on inflation which everyone is worrying about of late. He says pricing power in the companies he owns is important. High return on capital and margins can help to offset inflation. But he gives some interesting data on debit/credit card expenditure and the savings ratio.

He takes another poke at value stocks versus growth stocks. He buys shares in a foggy environment but it’s better to look through the front window rather than the rear-view mirror.  So he does not intend to own any oil and gas companies. He dislikes commodity businesses, and his analysis of car companies suggests he considers them to be of the same nature.

As regards other education the Investors Chronicle often runs good articles of that nature. For example an item on “Finding Hidden Value” by Algy Hall a couple of weeks ago. He pointed out that antiquated account rules have eroded the usefulness of many classic ratios (such as P/Es or Return on Capital). The big problems are intangibles recorded on balance sheets and the fact that a lot of investment never gets recorded but gets written off as an expense. For example, if you launch a new product with a large marketing budget, or open a new office in an overseas territory, there is a lot of expenditure associated which tends to only generate sales and profits in future years. But you will have difficulty convincing your accountants and auditors to capitalise that expenditure.

For high growth companies there is typically a lag between such investments and a good return. So such businesses tend to look poor value on historic financial ratios. As I pointed out in my book Business Perspective Investing, it can be more important to look at other aspects of the business than the conventional financial ratios. Conventional accounts tend to underestimate the value of intangibles such as brands, business partnerships and customer relationships which are so much more important than physical assets in the modern world.

The key is to look at the future prospects of a business rather than just the historic or immediate future financial ratios.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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