Sunday, July 2, 2017


This morning I scanned a stock report I receive every two months. I didn’t spend a lot of time reading it, as it is long and says very little that would cause me to change my behavior in any substantive way. During the last two years, the time I have been on their email list, I can summarize twenty four reports, each coincidently of 24 pages with one sentence. Everything is overvalued but some sectors are more overvalued than others.

Mark Twain famously observed, “OCTOBER: This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks in. The other are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.”

There is always some reason not to invest in the market unless the Shiller Price Earnings Ratio is at or near a historic low. Barring massive actions by the world’s central banks, as has happened over the last decade, one of these opportunities will appear every twelve years or so. It pleases us to call such events recessions or depressions.

Repeat after me, “I can’t predict the future.”

I can look at facts, such as the growth of debt in the private and public sector, and make the reasonable assumption that this will not end well, but I can’t say with certainty when or how it will end. Puerto Rico just went bankrupt. In the next few days, Illinois may become the first state to see its credit rating lowered to junk bond status. What happens when the world’s markets lose confidence in the Federal Reserve Bank, the European Central Bank, or the People’s Bank of China?

As I read a report that simultaneously said yes and no to every possible option, I was reminded that investing is really pretty simple if you have made a contract with yourself.

In my case, it would look something like this:

1)The Prime Directive If I don’t understand it, I am not going to buy it.

2) I will maintain a roughly 50%/50% balance between equities and high quality income producing assets (this 50% includes about 10% in highly liquid positions like money market funds), through good times and bad.

3) I believe that dividends will create about ½ of the growth produced by my stock portfolio. Therefore, “Why should I buy this if it doesn’t pay a dividend?” is a serious question. Also, “Is this dividend sustainable?” becomes an important issue.

4) I don’t sell individual bonds or bond funds, unless I need to rebalance my portfolio. I will ride them to maturity and then reinvest as appropriate.

5) I will have a clear reason for making any investment, since this action will make me an owner of this company. The factors involved could include the size of the moat around the company’s business model, quality of management, record of increasing dividends, or a big story. I recently took a somewhat speculative (for me) position in Zimmer Biomet. I thought it an attractively priced opportunity to get into the business of selling artificial joints to aging Baby Boomers. That would be an example of a big story.

Those are the most important clauses in my contract with myself. This has worked out pretty well for me, but these guidelines are certainly not the only possible rules for investment. Your age, your net worth, your fixed expenses and income, your personality, level of risk tolerance, and the amount of time you are willing to spend performing research will all contribute to the final contract you sign with yourself.

Keep It Simple Stupid is always good advice.

Treat your contract with yourself as seriously as you would any legal document that requires your signature.

Start investing today, because there will be a tomorrow, if not for you, there will be a tomorrow for someone you love.

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