Thinking in terms of decades
May 7, 2018
Peak to valley, from June 1998 – March 2000 Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway lost over 50%. In the same period, the S&P 500 returned over 45% and the Nasdaq 100 returned over 315%. A new client said to me the other day “I’m in this for the long term, but if after a couple years I don’t see any gains then I’m going to tell you this isn’t working.” That feels logical, as two years can seem like an eternity for clients that tend to check their account balances almost every day. On a separate side note, I believe this behavior is rooted in an investors tendency to not completely trust their advisor which is legitimate in a field chock-full of conflicts of interest and bad advice which can largely be eliminated by a fiduciary standard. But historical and statistical evidence suggests that even the most efficient strategies and portfolios are almost guaranteed to have a period of losses or no growth that last at least a couple years during any investor’s lifetime. Nobody can predict when that will happen. Does the fact that Warren Buffett underperformed the S&P 500 by almost 100% and the Nasdaq 100 by more than 350% for almost a two year period matter, or does this matter?
Obviously the long term performance is what matters, yet investor’s actions regularly tell a different story and unfortunately this will never change. Are you mentally prepared to experience significant periods of underperformance? It’s inevitable. In fact, just about everything has underperformed the last few years relative to US stocks. Living through a track record is a LOT different than reviewing one on paper when you know how the story ends.
In our firm we believe pretty good is better than constantly pursuing perfection, and maximum risk-adjusted returns come from proper portfolio construction instead of concentrated bets. Every strategy, including Warren Buffett’s, has periods that appear where it’s broken. For us mere mortals with a plethora of emotional baggage and behavioral biases that come attached to our money, I contend the best, perhaps even the only way towards a successful investment experience, is through diversification.
“The most powerful tool an investor has working for him or her is diversification. True diversification allows you to build portfolios with higher returns for the same risk. Most investors…are far less diversified than they should be. They are way over-committed to stocks.” -Jack Meyer
“Thus timing, and in particular the selection of the beginning point and end point for studying a performance record – plays an incredibly important role in perceptions of success or failure” -Howard Marks
“No strategy is so good that it can’t have a bad year or more. You’ve got to guess at worst cases: No model will tell you that. My rule of thumb is double the worst that you have ever seen.” -Cliff Asness, AQR