“The only constant in life is change.” – Heraclitus, Greek philosopher
The everchanging and unpredictable nature of markets is a going concern that stresses many investors out. Perhaps we have an innate desire for order and predictability, which explains why uncertainty and change make us uneasy. Whatever the reason, given that change and uncertainty is inextricably tied to investing, we investors can do better if we face the truth. In this article, I will share three main ideas pertaining to change and uncertainty.
1. Everything changes, embrace the idea of impermanence
For how much the world changes, it is unexpectedly difficult to visualise how quickly the world changes. A simple experiment borrowed from Warren Buffet illustrates this perfectly. Below is a list of the top 20 companies by market cap as of March 21st, how many companies do you think will remain in this list 30 years from now?
Surely Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Facebook will still be here, there is no other company like them!
Now, let’s take a look at the same list in 1989, 30 years ago…
You will see many familiar names on this list in 1989. However, what is striking is that none of these companies remain in today’s list. Zero. This goes to show how hard it is to predict the trajectory of businesses. This is not to say that it is impossible for the 20 largest companies today to remain on that list in 30 years time but whatever number we think it will be, chances are it is less. It is thus foolish to believe that certain things will NEVER change.
As investors, we need to be realistic and doing so will involve admitting that we cannot predict or be certain about the future. Instead, we should view the world through a probabilistic lens. Some companies have a higher probability of doing well and becoming successful, while others have a higher chance of failing. There is no such thing as a sure win. In fact, if anyone tells you that a company is sure to return you many times your money, take your money and walk away.
Looking at investing in terms of probability can help us make better decisions. As uncertainty cannot be completely eliminated, we should accept that there will always be a certain degree of risk in investing (i.e. there will always be a chance of failure). The goal is to find investments that has a high probability of working out and even if it does fail, the loss is marginal. In other words, a huge upside and limited downside. Therein lies the argument for having a certain degree of diversification. By having our eggs in different baskets, we significantly decrease the probability that our entire portfolio will go to zero. Even if the worst happens (the business fails due to low cost competitors or lawsuits or another recession hits), and it will, we can avoid crippling losses.
2. Even in an unpredictable world, certain things are surprisingly predictable
The future may be extremely unpredictable but history repeats itself. In the markets, cycles are surprisingly predictable. In the business and credit cycles, period of expansions are followed by periods of contraction. Likewise, in the stock market cycle, periods of euphoria are followed by periods of depression, which are then followed by periods of optimism again.
Thus, it is possible to study patterns in the past and use them as a rough guide for what could happen next. One such example is the stock market cycle.
As seen in the S&P500 chart above, a period of euphoria (from 1997 to 2000) is followed by one of despondency (2000 to 2002), which is then followed by another cycle of extreme optimism and greed (2002 to 2007) which is followed by severe pessimism (2008-2009). More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a huge market sell off in March of 2020. Soon after, the markets rebounded to all time highs. Thus, it is inevitable that cycles will reverse and reckless excess will be punished, and vice versa. Therein lies a possibility of turning cyclicality to our advantage by behaving countercyclically.
However, this is not to say that we should start timing the market and enter at the bottom to sell at the top. After all, it will be foolish to think that we can predict when the tides will turn.
Since we cannot change the environment or predict it, we have to adapt to the prevailing climate by being more aggressive or defensive. Instead of thinking of whether to invest or not as a binary decision, we should see it in terms of a spectrum. When the market crashed in March of 2020, wise investors would have acted counter cyclically by deploying their cash reserves and picking up more shares in great businesses. At times like today when the markets seem to be approaching dangerous levels, we can perhaps hold back a little and start to accumulate some cash, waiting for opportunity to present itself. Some may even consider trimming their positions. However, I personally would never completely sell out of my holdings in expectation of profiting from a market crash. The expectation of successfully doing so is simply unrealistic in my opinion. As Warren Buffet puts it, “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”
3. First be lucky, then be humble
In being honest with ourselves about our limitations and vulnerabilities, we will come to appreciate the role of luck and risk in our lives and investing. Regardless of whether we like it or not, the two cousins play a role in every part of our lives and even more so when the markets are concerned. Where there is luck, there is also risk. From the lottery of birth to the successes in life, luck plays an elusive yet decisive role.
Thus, we should always remain humble and never get ahead of ourselves. We may make a series of successful investments/bets, but never take it for granted that our future endeavours will see the same success. As quickly as luck can bestow us with an obscene fortune, risk can take it all away.
It also follows that we should be grateful and contented with what we have. Do not succumb to greed and take riskier bets or taking on too much leverage such that when the unexpected happens, we will be in financial ruin and unable to climb back.
Exercise adequate scepticism and prudence in this uncertain world. Do not take anything for granted, be it that Apple will continue its dominance or that a company will continue its growth trajectory linearly. Yes, this may mean that we will miss out on some of the explosive returns we are witnessing in meme stocks today. However, it also means we are protecting ourselves from financial ruin and remaining in the game, making sure that we always have another chance for luck to be on our side. This is perhaps the only way to deal with luck and risk.