Becoming An Investor
Building Wealth By Investing In Stocks, Bonds, And Mutual Funds
by Peter I. Hupalo
Chapter 2: The Loserís Game
In a famous college commencement speech,* the speaker told graduating students that if he could offer just one piece of advice, wearing sunscreen would be it. If I had just one piece of advice to give you, sunscreen would not be it, although wearing sunscreen to protect you from dangerous ultraviolet sun rays is good advice.
Yet, there is advice that is even more important; one thing you must know to survive and prosper as an investor throughout any time period, bull market or bear. One thing few investors understand and know. This is something you will not be able to explain to many of your friends or family. They simply will not want to accept its truth. The great majority of the professional investment community really doesn't want you to know what I am about to tell you. For if you understand it, you will not be a very profitable client to them. Yet, what Iím about to discuss is well-known among the best investors.
Perhaps, you too will not want to accept this advice. Wearing sunscreen is a good example of advice that is easily followed. It tells you to do something. It is proactive. You take action to get a result. People like that. It makes them feel in control. It makes them feel powerful. It makes them feel successful and makes them feel their success is due to intelligence and hard work. It gives them control over their lives. Proactivity is fun.
For example, I really enjoyed writing my first book, Thinking Like An Entrepreneur, because it was proactive in scope. It taught people how to take action to achieve successówhat to focus upon to succeed in building a company. Writing it was fun. Yet, years before I had written Thinking Like An Entrepreneur, I had completed a monograph about investment that I decided, at the time, not to publish.
I didnít think the book would be popular, because it just seemed so damn negative. Most of it kept telling people what not to do. Further, it kept telling them, even if they had been successful in their investments in the past, this probably meant nothing, that it was not due to their superior investment strategy or their superiority as an investor. Who wants to read a book like that?
Yet, there are many intelligent investors in the world who would enjoy and benefit from this book. And, so, here is my best investment advice: Investment is a Loserís Game. Never forget that. Chant it to yourself at night before you go to bed.
We wish to examine the field of investments from simple game theoretical considerations.
What determines success and what determines failure? Are there principles that can be understood to help the individual invest more successfully? I believe that the best principle that can be adopted by the individual investor is to ignore the market, minimize trading expenses, think a bit like a business owner, invest long-term, and, most crucially, know your limitations as an investor.
There are two types of games: "Winnerís Games" and "Loserís Games." Now this doesnít mean that losers play only certain games, while winners play other games. It has nothing to do with personality characteristics. By "Loserís Game," I donít mean that investors are losers. It is just a way to classify games to help us understand them better.
The outcome of any competitive game depends upon the actions of both the winner and the loser of the game. This does not always imply the winnerís actions will dominate the outcome. Many games are not won, but rather, are lost. It is important to understand the distinction.
Winnerís Games are those games whose outcome is largely determined by the actions of the winner. Loserís Games are those games whose outcome is largely determined by the actions of the loser.
Amateur tennis is a loserís game. Non-highly-trained players do not possess the skills to deliver excellent serves and returns with consistency. An attempt to try harder to deliver superior shots, compared to the opponent, will not meet with success, but double faults and shots that go out of bounds. Trying harder to make great shots will mean that you are giving the opponent points. The player is not only competing against the other player, but also against the inherent difficulties of the game. The more competitive the amateur tries to be, the more the inherent difficulties of the game will beat him down.
The amateur who has not mastered the fundamentals of the game is far better off just trying to deliver a shot within the tennis court bounds than trying to outplay the opponent. Keep the ball in play and give the opponent the opportunity to mess up the shot. And, the harder the opponent tries, the more likely he will mess up!
If you were playing a professional tennis player, the situation would change drastically. Professional tennis is a winnerís game. Professional tennis players have mastered the fundamentals of the game. You must not only master the fundamentals of the game to win, but you must also deliver superior shots. You must outplay your opponent to win. Returning the ball within court bounds is not enough. The opponent probably wonít mess up and might well force a shot you canít return.
In amateur tennis, having the opportunity to hit the ball is an opportunity for the opponent. In professional tennis, hitting the ball is an opportunity for the hitter. Professionals look upon having the serve as an advantage. Amateurs are better off the less contact they need to have with the ball!
Loserís games are the competitive personís bane until the fundamentals of the game are mastered. When I was younger, I once lost about twenty-six tennis matches in a row to a friend. The further behind I felt, the more I tried to cream the ball and deliver a killer shot.
I remember one shot actually being in bounds and drilling right through the fence behind the court. Wow! What Power! That was fun. What potential I had! Unfortunately, for that one shot, there were many more shots that hit the net, went out-of-bounds, or, in some other way, cost me a point. The more I tried to deliver superior play, the further behind I got. I had not mastered the fundamentals of the game. Nor, would I ever.
Competitive people want to win. Often, they derive much of their sense of self-worth from winning. So, as the competitive person loses more and more, he will either try harder and harder to win, or else give up. That is a natural human tendency. With tennis, an individual who really wants to win will, in time, learn that by just easing up a bit, more games are won.
Some people make excellent amateur tennis players. They learn just to keep the ball in play. Sometimes, they even feel they will be able to become a professional. Then, they find they are never able to beat the better, more professional players. They have been able to win consistently, despite never really mastering the fundamentals of the game and constantly pushing themselves to improve as players. They win, by letting the other amateur lose.
The very best players have mastered the game and work to improve, to learn to force more shots. With tennis, there is the potential to master the game and learn to force good shots, if only you work enough at it.
So, the best players will start to develop a unique approach to play as they grow in ability. They will play conservatively when it is needed. But, if they are far enough ahead, they will push themselves to force a few shots. In that way they can grow from being a good amateur into having a more professional level of play. In time, the best will learn to play tennis as a winnerís game. If they continue to count on the opponent's messing up to win games, they will never move to a professional level.
You now have a complete understanding of the difference between winner's games and loser's games.
Investing is a loserís game. It is a loserís game, not only at the amateur level, but also at the professional level. Over time, trying harder to achieve superior returns will usually lead to inferior returns. Trying to time the stock market, day trading, buying options, and most active investment advice approaches investing as though it were a winnerís gameóbelieving you can actually conquer and beat the market.
If, for example, you had felt that the stock market was overvalued and due for a correction, and you had remained out of the stock market for the year 1995, you would have missed one of the marketís best years ever. But, maybe, you also missed the big market drop of 1987. What could you conclude from this? Probably, as with my streak of tennis losses, you would tend to remember the victories (or, near victory shots that led to losing the game!) and forget the defeats.
You reason that if only all your tennis shots or investment decisions had been as great as the best ones you remember, you would have won decisively! But, seeking that one great shot is what cost you the match.
You would tend to explain your victory as confirming proof of market timing and your skill to do it, while the defeat would be interpreted as only indicating a need to improve your methods slightly! You are interpreting investing, and more specifically, market timing, as though it were a winnerís game. It is not! It has never been shown that anyone, I repeat anyone, can master stock market timing.
Looking for stocks you feel might go up ten or twenty times from their present price in a few short years is also a form of trying to invest in the stock market as though it were a winnerís game. Or, given the late 1990ís you might be seeking growth stocks that go up 100 times or more in a few short years!
After all, you recall Dell, Cisco, Yahoo, and other companies which shot up by amazing amounts. To buy such speculative stocks implies you feel confident in finding opportunities that are grossly misevaluated by the market. Usually, you will not invest in the next Dell or Cisco, but, rather, the next He-Ro apparel company of the day. That is to say, a lousy investment. This can lead to huge losses.
Individual investors usually have not mastered business evaluation and fundamental analysis sufficiently to actively select the very best aggressively-chosen stocks from among the larger market. But don't feel bad. The professionals who are paid millions of dollars haven't done much better.
Yet, the human need to try to force a shot now and then reoccurs. If you must try to invest on winnerís game terms, I will show you what I feel are two of the best strategies.
One is investing in turnaround companies. Those are stocks that have hit bad times and are largely disliked by most investors. I canít show you how to select the real winners from the pack of dogs. No one really can. But, I can help you learn to protect yourself from investing in obviously crummy companies. That is a skill well worth having.
The other strategy is seeking out growth companies. Again, I canít tell you how to find the next Microsoft. No one can. But, I can help give you some general principles to keep in mind. Things to watch out for. Things that help you decide not to invest in a potential growth company. This is my sunscreen advice. If you must sit out in the blazing sun, protect yourself as best as you can!
Understanding that investing is a loserís game at heart should keep you from trying to force too many shots. Rather than looking for one big winner, aim for consistency in your results. The bulk of an intelligent investorís portfolio should be invested in high-quality, larger companies purchased at reasonable prices. Such a portfolio will likely beat, not only a market timerís portfolio, but also a speculative portfolio of "carefully" selected, aggressive stocks on a risk-adjusted basis.
High portfolio turnover is indicative of trying to play the investment game as though it were a winnerís game. Shifting money rapidly from one investment to another indicates a belief that you can place the two possible investments on a scale of their relative merit with a high degree of accuracy. Further, you are expecting that the market will, in short order, realize just how knowledgeable you are and correct the valuations!
Any individual investor who buys individual stocks must be able to make an estimate of the relative merit of two stocks. However, we must be realistic about our ability to distinguish opportunities. Often the difference between two stocks, as far as investment desirability is concerned, is so slight that there is no way to distinguish which one will prove superior. This is assuming, of course, that the market rewards the superior stock with a higher valuation!
But, don't assume this will happen in the very near future. Undervalued stocks will not instantly increase in stock price, just because you now own them. But, we can say this: Companies that prosper as businesses, companies that grow their sales revenue and profits over the years will almost certainly appreciate in stock price. And, even if appreciation is not tremendous, a steady stream of growing dividends will probably be paid to the investor, providing an excellent return on his investment.
We must avoid shifting money between indistinguishable opportunities. Commissions and taxes will kill performance. This is the motto of "Sell reluctantly." Today, with Internet stock trading, commissions are sufficiently low that excessive portfolio turnover is no longer the concern it once was. Yet, high portfolio turnover seldom enhances overall return.
Playing investment like a loserís game means taking advantage of long-term compounding, diversification, managing risk, and controlling the urge to imbibe in speculative excess. If you understand only this single concept, that investing is a loserís game, you will do well as an investor throughout your life.
*The Speech, "Everybody's Free To Wear Sunscreen" was incorrectly attributed to Kurt Vonnegut who, in fact, never delivered this particular speech to any college. The speech was actually based upon a Chicago Tribune article by Mary Schmich. The speech was so popular, Baz Luhrmann had it made into a popular song. Radio stations everywhere played the song and incorrectly attributed it to Kurt's commencement address at MIT. Where did all the confusion and misinformation come from? Rumors and e-mail on the Internet. Fortunately, investors aren't subject to such foolishness. Unlike the mass media, they'll be sure to check their information over carefully.
© 2000 by Peter Hupalo, all rights reserved.
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