Three Lessons From A Singaporean Favourite Game

Apart from red packets and delicious snacks, there is one other thing that everyone look forward to during the Lunar New Year. It’s Mahjong! On top of being a good game to stimulate your brain and catch up with your relatives and friends, this household favourite game yields many lessons about investing and life.

Lesson 1: You can’t win it all

The first lesson is a tough pill to swallow. No matter how skilled you are at reading the cards of others or how disciplined you are at playing defence, you cannot always win in Mahjong. Sometimes, people just keep winning from 自摸 (drawing the tile themselves). Disgusting! Trust me, I understand how frustrating this is (been on the receiving end of that multiple times). Unfortunately, this is something that is completely out of our control. You win some, lose some. Sometimes you are lucky, and sometimes you are not.

Thankfully, doing nothing is perfectly fine! Luck comes and goes, but in the long run, over many repetitions, what gives one an edge is skill and the right mentality. Thus, by directing our efforts to the things we can control, we can poise ourselves to seize opportunity when the tides turn.

This is very applicable to investing and anything that involves a mixture on luck and skill, even life. Given the infinite number of factors affecting the outcome, there is a infinite possibilities that could occur. Even if we have done everything we can to the best of our ability, some things are just out of our hands. In investing, we should expect a third of our decisions to not work out. With that in mind, we should have a sound plan and take precaution to ensure that we can remain financially resilient. Eventually, lady luck will once again shine on us.

Lesson 2: Take calculated risk

Mahjong also teaches us a thing or two about risk, something that is hard to understand simply by reading or listening. This makes it challenging to learn anything much about risk from our formal education. Yet, risk is pervasive in life. At every step of the way since birth, luck and risk is at play regardless of whether we are aware of it, and arguably much more so in investing. In my opinion, the best way to learn about risk is to learn from experience, and playing Mahjong is an excellent opportunity to do that.

Take for example a situation where someone is calling (waiting to win) a 满台 (the maximum “points”, usually 5 in Singapore) and the best you can do with your hand is 三台 (three “points”). In this case, the downside if you throw the winning tile is huge while the potential gain of winning a 三台 is relatively small. So, what would you do in that situation? As rational players we should play defence when we draw a tile that we think may be the winning piece for the other player. While doing so may mean that we submit to fate that we won’t win this round, we do not risk losing more. We much rather wait for another round where the reverse is true, when we are calling a 满台 and others are calling only two or three 台. These situations where the payoff is skewed in our favour present excellent opportunities to play aggressively.

In investing, we want to “bet” big on situations which has a huge upside and minimal downside. Or in the words of Monish Pabrai, “heads I win, tails I don’t lose much”. The converse is also true. We should ignore investments that have small upside but could potentially lead to large permanent losses. We much rather wait for the low risk high reward opportunity. Following this logic, I never short a stock. This is because the upside is at most a 100% while the downside is unlimited. When we invest in a company, the upside is unlimited. Why would I take the first bet? When we make rational decisions based on this sound principle, they cease to be bets. Instead, they are strategic moves involving calculated risks. Such opportunities are few and far between so when we are lucky to find one, make sure to capitalise on it.

In both Mahjong and investing, there are many nuances that writing cannot encapsulate. However, the idea of looking for “bets” with huge upside and minimal downside remains the core of a winning strategy. As mentioned above, the best way to learn about risk is by experiencing it. In order to truly appreciate how luck and risk come into play, one has to put themselves through those situations, and one of the best ways to do so is playing Mahjong.

Lesson 3: You can’t know everything

Building on the concept of risk, the next lesson drawn from Mahjong applies to investing and life as well. Picture this:

You are calling a 满台 and it is your turn to draw. You look at the tiles on the table and know that another player is gunning for a 清一色 (full suit) 索子 (bamboo). You pray to god to draw anything but a 索子. As you draw your tile and slide your thumb across the face of the tile, you feel sticks… and you heart drops. You know that he wants 索子 but you are not sure which exact piece he needs (unless you have a PhD in mahjong like the Aunties and Uncles). At this point in time you face a major dilemma. Do you throw the 索子 and risk losing a lot of money? Or do you play defence and miss out on the potential of winning a lot of money? In such situations, there is no easy way out. Neither is there a correct answer. It all depends on you.

Similarly in investing, you cannot pinpoint what the future beholds. The best you can do is assess all available information and make a decision that you are comfortable with based on your current financial situation, risk appetite and goals. If you think that the risk-reward ratio is attractive after thorough assessment of the available information, you just have to take the leap of faith. As such, we can expect that unknown unknowns may occasionally derail some of our theses. This makes the case for a certain degree of diversification, never put all your eggs in one basket.

That being said, I am not promoting gambling. We all have to take responsibility of our actions and know our limits. Sometimes before making a big decision, a certain friend of mine will look in his drawer to count his chips. In both investing and Mahjong, we only risk what is reasonable. And what is reasonable, depends on a variety of factors such as our risk tolerance and financial resilience. I simply hope to share that there is value we can gain from playing intricate games such as Mahjong that formal education cannot offer us. So, the next time you play Mahjong, pay attention to the life lessons that this Singaporean favourite game has to offer.

The Resilient Investor

Black Swans are events that come as a surprise but have a major and disproportionately huge effect. In his book, “The Black Swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that in today’s increasingly winner-takes-all world, Black Swans are becoming more frequent. Though not always bad, some Black Swans can lead to severe market crashes (most notably the Global Financial Crisis and the Covid-19 Pandemic). Somewhat related to my previous article on change and uncertainty, in this article, I will cover how investors can remain resilient in the face of volatility and uncertainty which is characteristic of our world today.

1. Respect uncertainty

While it is impossible to reliably predict recessions and market crashes, we can prepare for them by removing our vulnerabilities. As Charlie Munger once said “all I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there”. By reflecting on our potential pitfalls, we can become more financially resilient to crises. This applies not just to our portfolio but to almost all areas of life.

The most straightforward way to respect uncertainty is to have enough cash in reserve to act as a cushion because we never know what the future may hold. This is a point that I often repeat because having an adequate emergency fund is crucial. Having sufficient cash will help tide us over in the event of a prolonged downturn. For instance, if we did not have an adequate emergency fund during the Covid-19 Pandemic and were one of the unfortunate people who were furloughed, we would be forced to dip into our portfolio to tide us over. However, that period also coincided with a severe market downturn. Thus, we would have wound up selling some stocks at a significant loss. This highlights the importance of having sufficient cushion to avoid such a precarious situation which will require us to liquidate our portfolio at a loss. While this will mean that we will have idle cash on hand, this is the price to pay to be resilient, and one that we should be willing to pay.

2. Never depend on the kindness of strangers

Next, as resilient investors, we should never depend on the kindness of strangers. This means that we should avoid being in a spot where we are at the mercy of someone or something that is completely out of our control. A good example of this is to avoid excessive borrowing. While leverage can boost our returns in the short term, it diminishes our ability to stay afloat when disaster strikes. In other words, debt erodes our “staying power”. This is because when we take on debt, we are essentially promising the bank, or whoever we borrowed from, that we will consistently make a series of payments no matter whether times are good or bad. Thus, during periods of downturn when we may not have a stable source of income and our portfolio will likely be performing poorly, we will still be obligated to make payments. This is one scenario where we will be at the mercy of the creditor. More often than not, one will be forced to liquidate his assets at a loss just to meet the obligations. Thus, during the good times, take the opportunity to reduce and eliminate bad debt and avoid excessive leverage.

A corollary to this is that we should also avoid investing in businesses that take on excessive debt and/or are capital intensive. Such businesses have high fixed costs that need to be paid no matter whether times are good or bad. For instance, airlines consistently incur high fixed costs in terms of aircraft maintenance and typically have a debt-laden balance sheet. This means that even during periods where few planes are being flown (such as the past year and a half), cash is continuously being burnt. A company with high fixed costs will require a constant cash flow just for survival, making them more risky as they are more likely to go bankrupt during a severe crisis.

3. Instead of fixating on short-term gains or beating benchmarks, we should place greater emphasis on becoming shock resistant, avoiding ruin and staying in the game

As previously covered in my article on diversification, a certain degree of diversification can reduce the risk of our portfolios as the complete failure of a single holding will not lead to financial ruin. Indeed, doing so will incur an opportunity cost in terms of potential returns forgone. For instance, instead of having a hundred percent of our portfolio in cryptocurrencies that can potentially return 2x, 3x, or even 10x our money, we may be holding blue-chip stocks or making contributions to CPF that have lower returns. While I agree that diversification will mean that we will not be maximising our returns, I would argue that a sufficiently diversified portfolio is necessary to avoid financial ruin.

In fact, maximising returns should not be the goal if you are looking to create long-term wealth for your family and retirement. The goal should be wealth preservation and growing your savings at an adequate rate so that you can enjoy your golden years. If you are looking to create long-term, resilient wealth, you cannot operate like a heat seeking missile. Always be wary of greed.

This will also mean that there will undoubtedly be times when you may lag the market, but you must have the resilience to stay the course and trust in your framework.

4. Beware of overconfidence and complacency

During a bull market such as the one we are in the midst of now, we may be seduced by a false sense of safety. With every stock taking off to the moon, we may fall into a state of complacency and be overconfident of our ability to pick individual stocks. During such instances when the entire market seems to be defying gravity, we as investors should be keenly aware that this may signify excessive optimism in the market.

This quote from Warren Buffet can provide insight into how we should behave, “be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.” When the market seems to be obsessed with chasing high returns, driving the valuations of companies sky high, all the more should we be wary of chasing fads.

This is not to say that we should attempt to time the market. We should stay the course and continue to dollar cost average. At the same time, abide by the timeless laws of the stock market which act like the laws of gravity. Continue to follow sound principles and invest in great businesses at a cheap prices. This will protect us from permanent loss when disaster strikes.

5. Always require a margin of safety and be keenly aware of your exposure to risk

Last but most definitely not least, the fifth method of being resilient is to always demand a margin of safety. A margin of safety in terms of investing can be seen as the percentage difference between the stock price and what each share is actually worth. A company selling at a price significantly below the intrinsic value of the company is said to provide a margin of safety. As resilient investors, we should demand an adequate margin of safety which acts as an insurance against mistakes, which are bound to happen. It is said that we should expect to be wrong a third of the time. Having a margin of safety means that even when we are wrong, we will not be severely wrong such that we will incur devastating losses. Shoot for the stars and land on the moon. On a similar note, we should focus on our exposure to risk. Always ask yourself “what could go wrong?” and “what is the consequence going to be?”. A margin of safety will help reduce the consequences of mistakes on our portfolio.

Similarly, the concept of a margin of safety applies to life as well. When we are making plans, we should also factor in a margin of safety. For instance, if we want to retire with a million dollars at 65, aim to hit a million by 55 and everything else will be icing on the cake. This way, even if we suffer a setback such as getting retrenched or falling severely ill, we have sufficient cushion and may still be on track to hit our goal. Shoot for the stars and land on the moon.

I find this quote from Jeffrey Gundlach, a successful investor and businessman, apt to sum up this article on how to remain financially resilient: “Make your mistakes nonfatal. It’s fundamental to longevity. And ultimately, that’s what success is in this business: longevity.” In essence, limiting our downside is key to building long-term wealth.

Change And Uncertainty

“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.

Diversification – Wisdom Or Folly?

Diversification is perhaps one of the most highly contested topics amongst investors. Many super investors are of the opinion that diversification is the guaranteed road to being average. Warren Buffet once said “Diversification is a protection against ignorance… Makes very little sense for those who know what they’re doing.” However, there are many other world renowned investors that are in support of diversification. Even Benjamin Graham, Buffet’s mentor, advocates for diversification as a way to reduce portfolio risk. How can there be such contrasting viewpoints amongst a group of people with seemingly similar mindsets? In this article, I discuss the cases for and against diversification, some potential reasons behind the differing viewpoints, as well as my thoughts on diversification.

The case against diversification

Many investors such as Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, Monish Pabrai and many more have very concentrated portfolios. The reason for doing so is to earn outsized returns and beat the market. The idea is very straightforward. In the entire stock market, there are some stocks that will lag the average and some that will lead the index by huge margins. The goal is to identify these businesses and concentrate your holdings in them. After all, if you were to diversify across hundred of stocks, you are better off just buying the index which saves on time, effort and costs. In his book, “The Dhando Investor”, Monish Pabrai encourages making few bets, big bets and infrequent bets, arguing that the results of those who place many bets, small bets and frequent bets are predictably pathetic. These investors walk the talk and have demonstrated their willingness to put a disproportionate amount of their portfolio in a few stocks. For instance, Buffet has been willing to put up to 40% of his portfolio in a single stock on certain occasions (Apple and American Express). As for Munger, his entire personal portfolio consists of just 5 holdings!

The logic here is surprisingly simple. If you are able to identify the few businesses that are going to do exceptionally well, it makes very little sense to invest in a bunch of other businesses for the sake of diversification.

However, it is important to note these investors still have a certain degree of diversification. This is a point that I will return to later on. For now, let us look at the case for diversification.

The case for diversification

Billionaire and hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, a proponent of diversification, famously created what he termed the “holy grail of investing”.

According to the holy grail, diversification can reduce risk without hurting your returns. Furthermore, the lower the correlation between the asset class, the better the effect of diversification (with uncorrelated assets giving the best effect). Ray Dalio recommends investors to find 15-20 uncorrelated streams that will allow for the most return on investment while cutting risks. Ray Dalio also recommends diversifying across asset classes, sectors, currencies, countries, and investment “styles” (like small cap, growth, etc., in equity markets).

Sir John Templeton, who’s fund averaged annual returns of 15% for 38 years, also advocates for broad diversification to guard against our own fallibility. He tells investors to expect a third of their investments to go south. In essence, these investors recognise that not everything in this world can be known. Thus, they argue that diversification is the key to build a resilient portfolio as it guards against the unknown unknowns.

Diversification exists on a spectrum

It is important to note that diversification exists on a spectrum. On one end, we can have a portfolio consisting of only one stock and on the other, we can buy the entire stock market. Additionally, risk and returns can also be placed along a similar spectrum.

Different definition of risk

The first possible explanation for the contrasting opinions on diversification could be the different definition of risk that these investors believe in. There are two main school of thoughts here. Those who favour concentrated portfolios belong to the camp that believes that risk is the probability of permanent loss in capital, while the advocates of diversification are likely to measure risk as the volatility of the portfolio (i.e. the chance of suffering a loss in a given time period). This begs the question, which definition is right? I believe that investing is a craft, not a science. Thus, there is no universally correct definition, only what is right for you. If you are like Warren Buffet or Charlie Munger who possess the ability to tune out the market noise and ignore volatility without losing sleep, risk is perhaps better defined as the probability of permanent capital loss for you. In this case, holding only a handful of businesses that you thoroughly understand can be justified. However, if you find yourself fretting over the daily ups and downs of the stock market and at risk of acting on impulse and based on your emotions, volatility is the better definition of risk for you. This is because volatility increases the risk of you acting on impulse and making a mistake (selling at the bottom or buying at the peak). In this case, it will likely be prudent to reduce volatility by diversifying broadly. Of course, this means that you may be subjecting yourself to lower potential returns, bringing me to the next point on personal goals.

Varying aims

Investors such as Buffet and Monish Pabrai pride themselves on achieving high returns in excess of the market average. Many shareholders put their money with these investors in hopes earning market beating returns. For these investors, it makes perfect sense to concentrate their portfolio in a few holdings that they believe can deliver higher returns than the market in order to maximise returns for their shareholders. On the other hand, Ray Dalio is a hedge fund manager and has structured his fund around delivering decent returns with minimal volatility. It is worth noting that investors in his fund include many pension funds. Thus, countless people rely on his fund’s returns no matter whether the stock market is up or down in a particular year. It’s money that they cannot afford to lose. In this case, diversification across a broad range of asset classes and industries with minimum correlation is the means to smoothen the ride for their shareholders without compromising on returns. Hence, the duty to shareholders also influences their strategy. In other words, the difference in their degree of diversification arises from what the investor seeks to achieve.

Conclusion: diversification for the retail investor

Unlike fund managers, we retail investors do not have to answer to shareholders. The only person we are answerable to is ourselves (and our family). This means that we are free to structure our funds according to our own definition of risk and personal goals.

If you do not have the temperament to watch your portfolio tank 40% or more during a recession without losing sleep and/or you are contented with average or slightly above average market returns, the view that the definition of risk is volatility may be most suited for you. In that case, seek to reduce the volatility of your portfolio by diversifying across various asset classes (bonds, commodities, stocks), industries and geographies. For starters, check out my article on an adaptation of the three fund portfolio to the Singapore context.

If your goal is to compound your money at upwards of 15% per year and you can stomach volatility without losing sleep, you can consider adopting the view that risk is best defined as the probability of permanent capital loss. As long as you invest in sound businesses that continue to grow, the stock price will eventually converge on intrinsic value and volatility is merely noise. However, super investors such as Buffet and Munger possess a unique ability to analyse businesses and much more resources to gather information not available to the layman. We should be humble and recognise that we cannot be a 100% sure about any investment. Hence, I believe the ideal diversification (based on the definition that risk is the chance of permanent loss, not volatility) lies somewhere in between the concentrated portfolios of super investors and buying the entire index. My personal preference is to have 10 to 15 stocks, with no more than 10% of my portfolio in a single holding.

In fact, there is nothing that is stopping us from doing both. We can allocate a sizeable chunk of our portfolio to index tracking ETFs (for instance 50-80%, depending on our preferences) and have the rest in a handful of businesses that we believe are undervalued. This portfolio may not achieve returns in excess of 20% but it can still deliver slightly better than average returns, as proven by Ray Dalio and Sir Templeton, who both edged out the market over extremely long periods of time while maintaining a high degree of diversification.

What matters then is to choose a strategy that is aligned with your personal goals and temperament. This way, we will be able to stay the course even in difficult times that test our faith.

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7 Timeless Concepts From “The Intelligent Investor”

Written by the founding father of value investing, Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor has been considered the bible of stock investing ever since it was first published. While some ideas are may no longer be relevant today, many have withstood the test of time. Here are 7 timeless concepts from The Intelligent Investor.

1. What is investing?

Let us start of with Graham’s definition of investing. In The Intelligent Investor he wrote that “an investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and an adequate return”. This definition can be segmented into 3 parts. First, “upon thorough analysis” suggests that investing requires you to commit sufficient time to do research and your due diligence. Next, “promises safety of principal” means that investing involves protecting our capital from losses. Lastly, “an adequate return” implies that investing provides a fair return for our time and effort, not a windfall. This definition thus draws a clear distinction between investing and the likes of gambling and speculation. Investing serves to protect our capital while providing a decent rate of return. Gambling, on the other hand, provides the possibility of a windfall but also a high chance of losing everything.

2. Behind every stock is a business

This brings me to my next point: a stock is not just a ticker symbol, it is an ownership in an actual business, with an underlying value that does not depend on its share price. With stock prices continuously hitting all time highs today, it is easy to forget that there is an underlying business behind each stock ticker.

A litmus test to check whether we are buying a stock because of the underlying business is to ask ourselves this question: if there was no market for these shares, would I still be willing to have an investment in this company on these terms? If the lack of a market would mean that you will be unwilling to make this investment, you are playing a fool’s game, where you are hoping that the next fool will come along and take these shares off your hands for a higher price.

After all, before the creation of the stock market, investing in a business entails putting up capital for a stake in a company with no way to consistently track the price of that ownership. The creation of the stock market has made it possible to have all the quotations at our fingertips. Whether this is for the better or worse depends on how we use it (more on this later).

3. Share price and value will often deviate

The third concept is that deviation between the share price and the value of a company is a natural phenomenon. Sometimes, this deviation will last a week or two but other times, it can go on for many months. Graham wrote: “The market is a pendulum that forever swings between unsustainable optimism and unjustified pessimism. The intelligent investor is a realist who sells to the optimists and buys from the pessimists”. This quote reminds me that volatility is part and parcel of investing. The sadness we feel when we see our holdings dip is the cost we have to pay in order to take part in this machine of wealth creation. However, if you believe that the market is at least somewhat efficient, prices and intrinsic value will eventually converge in the long run. Thus, looking at the market levels today where prices seem to be running way ahead of value, there are only a few possibilities that can follow: stock prices come down, value of businesses goes up, or both.

4. Future returns of every investment is a function of its present price

Another implication of the relationship between price and value is that the future returns of every investment is a function of its present price. The higher the price you pay, the lower your return will be. This is because for a company with an extremely high valuation, their future growth is already priced in. This means that this future growth is to be expected of them. If future earnings turn out to be worse than expected, this valuation is no longer justified and their share price will tumble. An implication of this is that a great company is only a great investment at the right price. For instance, despite improving fundamentals, Amazon did not break it’s dotcom bubble peak of USD$105 until 9 years later in 2009! This is because in 2000, Amazon’s share price ran so far ahead of its value that it took almost a decade for its fundamentals to “catch up”. As Warren Buffet so aptly put it: “Price is what you pay; value is what you get”. When investing, we are looking to get more while paying less.

5. Volatility does not equate to risk

Building on the previous two points, Graham argued that risk is not fluctuations in price but rather the loss of value which either is realized through actual sale, or is caused by a significant deterioration in the company’s position – or, more frequently, is the payment of a price greater than the intrinsic value of the stock. When investing, we are putting up our capital for potential appreciation. Due to the uncertain nature of the future, there is always a chance of losing our capital due to misjudgement, competition, a recession or a multitude of other reasons. These are the risks that we are undertaking when investing in a company, not the day to day fluctuations in the company’s share price. In other words, risk is the chance of a permanent loss of capital, while volatility is the temporary losses on our investments. Graham also wrote that “The intelligent investor realises that stocks become more risky, not less, as their prices rise – and less risky, not more, when their prices fall”. This is because a company’s share price is a reflection of its expected future earnings. With lower prices, a company has lower expectations of future earnings and is hence less likely to fall short. Thus, volatility can potentially provide opportunities to accumulate even more shares in great businesses at cheaper prices.

6. Margin of safety

Next, is the need for a margin of safety. Graham argues that no matter how careful you are, the one risk no investor can ever eliminate is the risk of being wrong. In today’s VUCA world, this is more true than ever. With so many factors affecting the outcome, no one can be 100% certain which companies will thrive 10-20 years from now. Furthermore, luck and risk are also factors out of our control. There is always a chance that a business can do everything in its power but still lose out to its competitors. Therefore, there is a need for a “margin of safety”. This gives us assurance that even if we are wrong, we don’t suffer crippling losses and are able to continue investing (aka capital preservation). This is one of the ways to effectively deal with luck and risk; stay in the game long enough until luck becomes on our side.

7. Mr. Market

Finally, there is Mr. Market. This, in my opinion, is a powerful way to view the stock market and price quotations. Imagine that you have a business partner called Mr. Market. Everyday, Mr. Market gives you quotations on a list of businesses. These are prices that Mr. Market is willing to sell you shares of a business at or buy shares of the business from you. However, the quotations that Mr. Market gives us are subjected to his rapidly changing emotions and the news he reads. Some days, he may be overly pessimistic and sell you shares in wonderful businesses for extremely low prices. On other days, he may be overly optimistic and quote insane prices. While Mr. Market may give you many different prices on many different businesses, we need not need to act on it every single time. Our job is to be discerning. If Mr. Market quotes us a low price on a wonderful business, do not sell your stake and consider seizing the opportunity by accumulating more shares. If Mr. Market offers to sell his stake in a business for an insane price, we can ignore it or consider selling him some of our shares. This concept helps me worry less about the daily stock prices and focus on the underlying businesses.

These are the 7 timeless investing concepts I have learnt from The Intelligent Investor. Hope that it may benefit all and help us stay rooted in today’s volatile and uncertain market. For more articles and resources like this, click here to join The Dollar Sapling telegram channel!