Some weeks back, my younger brother wanted to learn about investing. I thought about it long and hard for quite a few weeks and eventually, I told him to go and buy this book – The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, the version with annotations by Jason Zweig.

intelligent-investor-benjamin-graham

Don’t call yourself an investor if you haven’t even read this

Who is Ben Graham?

Benjamin Graham is more famously known as Warren Buffett’s professor and former boss. Graham, together with Dodd, wrote the classic textbook, Security Analysis. Essentially, Graham is the godfather of Value Investing.

Graham biggest contribution was to popularise the idea that buying stocks should be a function of what you get relative to what you pay for. What you pay for is the price but what you get is a share of the profits and assets of the business. In essence, Graham popularised the use of the P/E (price-to-earnings) ratio and, together with Dodd, suggested normalising earnings before comparing with price, which is basically what Shiller’s Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE) ratio is.

Anyway, I told my brother to buy the book for two reasons and this post is essentially for him.

 

Reason 1: It’s the right way to think about Investing

I don’t mean to offend anyone from what I’ve seen, too many people approach business and investing the wrong way. They learn wrong ideas and end up doing stupid things until they either realise it too late or never at all.

Many people think that investing is all about buying low and selling high and they fail to understand what it really means to buy a stock. From ‘The Intelligent Investor’, there are three important lessons to learn.

#1: Price is what you pay, Value is what you get

Buying a stock means buying a share of the business which is why stocks are also known as ‘equities’ which basically translates into ownership. The essence of Graham, which is at the core of what Buffett and other Value Investors believe, is that an owner of the business cares about the assets of the business and what earnings or cashflows those assets can bring the owner.

Now, the majority of “investors” in Singapore only care about price. They know how much they bought a share of Singtel for. And they know how much they can sell one share of Singtel in the market right now. Why? Because the price is the simplest piece of information to find.

Better investors can cite the earnings, cashflows or dividends that the business can bring in each year. But imagine you’re a business owner. Will those metrics be enough? You’d probably want to know other things: How your competitors are doing? What do customers think of the product? What are the largest components of the cost of production?

The first important lesson from Graham is that being a stockholder means being an owner of the business. If you only buy the stock based on its price and the hope that the price will go higher than the price that you paid for it, that’s speculation. And Graham made it quite clear in the book that therein lies the difference between investing and speculation.

The trick is knowing which activity you’re engaging in.

#2: Price and Value can, and will diverge

The second important idea from Graham is that the stock market is driven by emotion, short-termism, and irrational behaviour. He personified the market as a fellow called Mr. Market who quotes you prices on the stocks each business day.

As Buffett understood, the advantage investors have is that an investor can afford to ignore Mr. Market and take advantage of his over-pessimism or over-optimism. On days where Mr. Market believes that the world is going to end, he ends up quoting prices that are so low that it’s benefit to buy. On days where he thinks markets will keep going up forever, he’ll quote prices that are so high that the business will never be able to provide a decent rate of return for investors*.

#3: Price and Value will converge (eventually)

Of course, for Value Investing to work out, prices and value must converge. In other words, buying at prices that are low relative to value lead to good returns because the market will eventually recognise that the company is worth much more than the current price and therefore bid prices back up to what the company is actually worth.

The problem with this is that this recognition can take time. For example, prices of financial stocks remained fairly depressed following the Global Financial Crisis of ’08-09 and it was only until last year (2017) that bank stocks finally started to gain some favour again.

This is why the great economist, John Maynard Keynes, who was a pretty successful investor as well, said that the markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. This is why many investors caution against the use of excess leverage. For the majority of retail investors, leverage is something to be VERY careful of. If you choose to proceed, do so with caution.

On the other hand, prices tend to come down fast. So if you’ve bought at a very high price relative to value, don’t expect to hang on to your gains for long. Once again, taking on leverage by shorting the market is also not for the faint-hearted. There are many Value Investors who short Growth and have paid a high price for it. When you short, being early is (almost) the same as being wrong.**

I wanted to do this in one post but it’s gone on for a little too long. In the second part, I’ll show you the parallel between buying “The Intelligent Investor” and investing.

Notes:

*The classic example of knowing how ridiculous the market was when a dot-com CEO told his shareholders that given the company’s share price at the time, he would need to return them 10 years worth of revenues in order for them to just break even. I thought it was Cisco but I can’t seem to find a source for this. Cisco’s price to sales went as high as 37 though.

**For those interested in finance, go watch ‘The Big Short’. It’s accessible and the heroes in the show almost lost everything by being early.