John (“Jack”) C. Bogle – 10 Investing Principles

One name that keeps consistently coming up in my education as an investor is John C. Bogle, the person who gave us Vanguard and also the concept of index funds. I have been watching/listening to some of his interviews before his death in Jan. 2019. Even at an age of 87, the man was so sharp! And I must say, every single time I listen to him speak, I learn something new.

John’s statements are easy to co-relate with the historical stock market data i.e. passive index investing generally gives the investor better returns at lower costs compared to actively managed funds. It is for this reason that a large portion of my net worth is tied up in low-cost index funds from Vanguard.

Regardless of what your investing strategy is like, it would be wise to listen to experienced heads such as John and adopt those learnings into your overall mindset.

In this post, I wanted to highlight 10 such investing principles that I have heard from his various interviews/speeches/books.

1. Reversion to the mean

Don’t choose funds based on past winners. One way or the other, all mutual funds do badly in one period and do better in another period

This is true of all investments in general. Past performance alone cannot guarantee future results. With every investment, it would be wise to look towards the future and question is the investment makes a good long-term choice.

2. Time is your friend.

Think of the value of compounding. Get yourself a little compound interest table and see that at 7%, money doubles every 10 years and it doubles again and again and again. And by the time you are at your retirement age, it might 35 to 40 times your original investment…maybe more than that.

I demonstrated this very concept in my previous post where I discussed Yield-on-Cost. This is such a powerful concept that can achieved through a simple buy-and-hold strategy with dividend growth investing.

3. Buy Right and Hold Tight

Pick a good fund and hold it through thick and thin. Don’t get despondent when it does badly, because it comes and goes. So don’t let yourself get distracted by changes in the fund performance or changes in the market.

Again, some sound advice about any investment vehicle. During a market correction, it would be wise to disregard all the market headlines and look instead at the fundamentals of the businesses you have invested in. If nothing materially has changed, stay put.

4. Have realistic expectations

I think common stocks should return at a nominal rate, nominal meaning before inflation…at a nominal rate of 7%. The dividend yield is very important in all this. Reasonable rate of return would be 7%, don’t look for 11, don’t look for 15, don’t look for nothing, don’t keep waiting for the next bear market….those are all guesses! Some of these guesses will come good, some not so good.

Several pearls of wisdom in that statement alone. In general, when attempting to draw estimates about projected growth in your portfolio or also things like valuing a business, it is better to remain conservative. Other useful takeaway is to remain invested in the market and not wait on the sidelines.

5. Forget the needle, buy the haystack

You don’t need to take the risk of owning individual stocks, take the market risk, which is high as it is“.

I think I largely agree that for a common individual who is least interested in the stock market news and world of finance, this would be great advice. However, I prefer a slightly hybrid approach where I have a large portion of my net worth invested in low-cost index funds and a smaller portion invested in dividend growth stocks.

6. Minimize the Croupier’s take

Cost is an important factor

Ensure that if you are investing in a index fund, it is low-cost. The expense ratio can add up over time and take away a significant portion of your total return.

7. There is no escaping risk

Think about this for a second..I don’t like the risk of the stock market. I am putting my money in a savings account or certificate of deposit. There is no risk there. Wait a minute! The return there is probably going to be about 1.5% and we are going to have 2.5% inflation. The real return is -1%! So is there any risk in putting your money in a savings account? You better believe it!

Stay invested and stay the course. Obviously, set aside some cash for emergency expenses. But keep the remainder invested. Cash sitting in a bank account will slowly get devalued over time.

8. Don’t fight the last war

Your job is to get the biggest gross return…inflation is going to take whatever it takes out of that. If it is big return, it will take a little of it. But if the gross return is small, it will eliminate it!

Jack was referring to safeguarding against inflation through special funds like “inflation beaters” (his words, TIPS?). In general, my takeaway from this was staying focused on one primary strategy and not making decisions based on problems that existed several years back or that might possibly exist several years into the future.

9. The Hedgehog beats the fox

The fox knows many things. But the hedgehog knows one great thing. In our business, foxes are those harvard business graduates with their fancy computers…armies of them..who know many things. I know one great thing, which is if you own the market in a low-cost index fund, you are guaranteed to earn your fair-share of the market is kind enough to give us, and lets be clear on this, whatever returns a bad market is mean-spirited enough to take from us. So it is the hedgehog who wins ultimately“.

Simple boring strategies ultimately have the highest probability of success, as compared to complicated strategies that involve timing the market.

9. Stay the course

Let me start with this premise…Many investors lose because of their own behavior and not because of how stocks and bonds do. They are trailers…they buy something that has done well and expect it to perform the same in the future, and it doesn’t. A whole lot of bad behavioral patterns…the find a hot stock manager, they jump on the bandwagon and that does not work….that will not work. So figure out a sound program, set the right course and don’t let all these superficial emotional momentary things get in your way! Another way of putting that is, don’t do something, just stand there!

Again, so many pearls of wisdom from the legend. I have previously written about cognitive biases and how that impacts investment decisions. A good investor must be cognizant of these and try their best to avoid such biases creeping in. Another advice is to avoid frequent tinkering with the portfolio based on market news. In fact, I find it easier at times to “zone out” and stay away from the news and headlines and instead focus on big picture and long-term fundamentals.

So there you go! Words from the legendary John C. Bogle. Dear Sir, I thank you humbly for all your contributions to this world. I am a better investor thanks to you.

Cognitive Biases during Investing

Things have really been getting a lot busy with work and life lately. It is summer time here in the US, and from what I can tell, the general public is out and about, trying to spend a lot of time outdoors. I can see the pandemic restrictions being lifted as well and it seems like things are slowly returning back to some semblance of normalcy. The markets are rallying along as well, and even all this talk of inflation has not really slowed it down. Does this mean that Mr. Market is treating this rise of inflation as a transitory event? Time will tell.

Even with all this news, I am continuing to stick to my strategy. While I tend to my responsibilities of my day job and my family’s needs, my capital deployed in high-quality businesses earns passive income for me in the form of dividends.

In my spare time, I have been binge-reading articles/watching videos on valuation, with an overall goal of adding more tools to my repertoire to analyze businesses effectively. One such person who has been widely quoted on the subject of valuation is Prof. Aswath Damodaran from the NYU Stern School of Business. If you have not checked his website, I humbly urge you to do so, as I think it is a treasure-chest of useful information/tools on the subject of valuation.

One of the topics that I happened to read about is how biases can impact valuations and this subject perked my interest. Here is what Prof. Aswath writes on this subject:

When you start on the valuation of a company, you almost never start with a blank slate. Instead, your valuation is shaped by your prior views of the company in question. The more you know about a company, the more likely it is that you will be biased, when valuing the company…In principle, you should do your valuation first before you decide how much to pay for an asset. In practice, people often decide what to pay and do the valuation afterwards.

Cognitive biases, in general, impact our ability to think and reason logically. Investing is no different. It is important to understand them and ensure that you are avoid them when evaluating businesses. Here are some well known biases that can impact your investment decisions.

Anchoring Bias

We humans tend to rely a lot on the very first piece of information that we receive and use that as an anchor or an initial reference point. As we receive new information, it is processed with reference to this anchor.

Anchoring is used very effectively by folks in the sales and marketing domain. One example that readily comes to mind: if you are ever at a car dealership shopping for a new car, notice how the car dealer will first show you the expensive models before showing you a “cheaper” model, thereby prompting you to buy the latter.

Here is another classic example, this time it is Steve Jobs using anchoring during an iPad promo event.

Anchoring, by itself, may not be such a bad thing in investing, if you are anchoring your brain to the intrinsic value of the investment. However, if your brain fixates on the wrong data point, such as say stock price alone, it can have a damaging effect on your decision making.

Confirmation Bias

Simply put, confirmation bias is a tendency to only search for, favor or interpret proofs that align with our existing point of view. In fact, taken to its extreme, this can result in misinterpreting contradictory evidences to support the current view.

This can be particularly harmful when objectively analyzing a business. If you are approaching the analysis with a “loaded mind” where you already think that “This is a great business“, you will tend to interpret data put in front of you through this prism and simply dismiss other non-conforming data as outliers.

Outcome Bias

This is a tendency to base the effectiveness of a decision through its eventual outcome, and neglecting all the other factors that may have contributed to the outcome. I view this bias through two hypothetical examples:

I bought a stock, and the stock price went higher the next day. Therefore, my decision to buy was correct.

OR

I sold a stock, and the stock price dropped the next day. Therefore, I am right about selling this stock.

Conventional wisdom states that the stock price is probably the worst place to look at when it comes to validation for your decision to buy/sell a stock.

Bandwagon Effect or Herd Mentality

This is a tendency of adopting a specific style or belief simply because others are doing it. In investing, this might be summarized as:

Everyone is buying this stock, therefore it must be a good business.

There is also the common case of FOMO aka Fear Of Missing Out, because you are always wondering about what the other investors know about this business that you don’t.

There are several examples from history to show how this generally does not end well for the investor. One such funny example is quoted by Benjamin Graham, the Godfather of Value Investing, in his famous book titled The Intelligent Investor:

And back in the spring of 1720, Sir Isaac Newton owned shares in the South Sea Company, the hottest stock in England. Sensing that the market was getting out of hand, the great physicist muttered that he “could calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people.” Newton dumped his South Sea shares, pocketing a 100% profit totaling £7,000. But just months later, swept up in the wild enthusiasm of the market, Newton jumped back in at a much higher price—and lost £20,000 (or more than $3 million in today’s money). For the rest of his life, he forbade anyone to speak the words “South Sea” in his presence.

Availability Heuristic Bias

This is a tendency to place undue importance on events and examples that come readily to mind. This is easily seen in a lot of commentary and analysis on investing. Investors tend to remember the dot-com boom or the Great Financial Crisis in vivid detail and sometimes use that a basis for future investments.

So what does all this mean?

Through this discussion, we can derive the following conclusions:

  1. Your greatest enemy and your greatest friend in all your decisions, investing or otherwise, is your very own sub-conscious.
  2. If you already own a particular stock and think the underlying business fundamentals are sound, one technique that I have found useful while analyzing such a holding is playing the Devil’s advocate i.e. now look for reasons why you would want to sell this stock and be as objective as you possibly can.
  3. Valuation is not an exact science, quite far from it actually. In fact, as a result of these biases and assumptions, there is a good chance that your estimations are completely wrong. It is for this reason that diversification in your portfolio helps to safe-guard against such bets going wrong.
  4. When in doubt, use the philosophy based on Occam’s Razor i.e. the simplest explanation/model is usually the best way to attack an estimation problem. The more complicated your model gets (including more inputs and assumptions), the greater the risk of your biases sneaking in.
  5. Always invest with a Margin of Safety, because at the end of the day, all valuations are estimates and they could be wrong.

That’s it, folks! I hope you found this article useful to read. Please drop a comment below to share your thoughts on this subject.

Until next time…

Articles of Interest – June 2021

Call me old-school, but I enjoy reading blog subscriptions on my old RSS feed reader. There is a wealth of information out there in the blogging community regarding investing in general, and specifically dividend stock investing.

A fellow dividend investor + blogger, Engineering Dividends, has a practice of sharing an article of interest and he/she has this setup as a post-series. I drew inspiration from this and decided to do the same on my own blog.

So here are some articles that I particularly enjoyed reading from the last few days:

DGI is one of the first bloggers that I started reading when learning about dividend growth investing. I have learned a lot from his articles and continue to do so. This post talks about Ronald Read, an average citizen who worked as a janitor and/or at the gas station, invested in high-quality dividend paying stocks throughout his life. By the time of his death, he had amassed a portfolio worth $8 million. I find this story inspiring and it re-affirms my belief in this strategy. My biggest takeaway from this is that you do not need to be a wall-street big-shot to be a successful investor. Even average retail investors such as you or me can be successful using such a simple investing strategy.

I started following this blog fairly recently and the above post happened to be one of the first ones that I read. I find the post to be a good starting point for anyone thinking about getting started with dividend growth investing. Mark has done a pretty good job of covering a lot of breadth without overwhelming the first time reader. I also find a lot of synergies between my approach to investing and the approach that Mark has described in this post.

The last article of interest is a rather somber one, but an important one nonetheless. Tawcan, one of my favorite bloggers in the dividend investing community, writes about how the news of a death a coworker helped put things in perspective with regards to his overall pursuit of financial independence.

In my previous post, I talked about the importance of making sound financial decisions and hinted at cutting down unnecessary expenses whenever possible. While this is a reasonable suggestion, there is a fine line here. And I realize that this pursuit can be taken to an extreme. At the end of the day, we all live once and life is short. And there are times when living the moment with your family and/or loved ones is more important than anything else, even if this means spending some money in that process. Money spent on a vacation with your family or on a wedding, might seem extravagant and unnecessary momentarily. But in the grand scheme of things, those memories that are priceless, which no amount of money can buy back.

So, it is important to strike a balance. Weigh the pros and cons of each major financial decision you make. Ensure that you are living the moment and spending a happy life one or the other. But don’t lose sight of securing your future as well. It is your hard-earned money, spend it wisely. 🙂

Making sound financial decisions

Over the course of investing in high-quality dividend stocks, I have realized that this strategy relies on two key facets:

  • Time
  • Capital Invested.

Let me elaborate on how each of these impact your portfolio’s performance.

Time

In general, the longer you stay invested in the stock market, the greater the odds of you generating a better return on your original invested capital. Hence, it is generally better if you start investing early in your lifetime and stay invested throughout.

Capital Invested

The other factor is simply how much amount your can contribute towards your investments and at what frequency. This is largely dependent on your personal lifestyle and the financial choices you make throughout the course of your lifetime.

I wanted to touch on this second aspect since it is often overlooked when it comes to investing.

A simple equation to look at your savings is as follows:

Savings = Income Generated – Expenses

Common sources of generating income are your regular day job and any side-hustles. One approach to maximize your savings is to excel regularly at your day-job, invest in yourself through improving your existing skillset such that you can command a higher salary. You can further supplement this by having one or more side hustles. But pretty soon, you will come to a point where you will simply be unable to maximize your income: either because of factors that are simply not in your control (eg. your employer cannot afford to pay you more), or because you simply do not have the time or the bandwidth to pick up more side-hustles.

This brings to the other piece of the equation: expenses. Compared to your income, on the face of it, this seems to be a little more under your control. Sure there are aspects such as groceries, gas or daily-use items that we cannot avoid paying. Because we all got to eat, take a shower, commute to work etc. 🙂 I get that.

But what about that fancy new car you are planning to buy (or just recently bought)? What about that fancy new smartphone you are planning to buy during Christmas this year? What about those frequent takeout meals you like spending on? These are lifestyle choices and they eat into your savings, thereby reducing the available capital that you could have otherwise deployed towards generating more wealth.

Even before you begin investing a single dime in the stock market, it is critical that you self-introspect and take note of your current financial situation. Monitor all of your expenses for any given month (or months), sit down with your family or loved ones who live with you and seek guidance on which expenses can be cut down. Work towards creating a reasonable monthly budget and stick to it.

Among the daily expenses that are common in each household, the ones related to paying off debt will impact your journey to financial independence the most. In this specific regard, I highly encourage the interested reader to look at Dave Ramsay’s baby steps. The first four steps, in particular, are critical. While I do not agree with Dave Ramsay’s thoughts on investing, I also cannot agree with him more about paying off debt sooner.

If you are currently in debt, please know that this is not the end of the world. We have all been there (including yours truly 🙂 ). It is actually pretty easy to turn this around and knock off this debt. You just need to turn that “Beast Mode” setting ON and aggressively eliminate this debt. If I have managed to open your eyes and forced you to think about this seriously, I have achieved my goal.

If you are not having any outstanding debt (other than your mortgage), pat yourself on the back! From this point on, you should first look at having an emergency fund. I typically recommend keeping a stash of cash to cover for expenses for atleast 3-6 months. What this amount would be is subjective to each family’s individual lifestyle.

You should then look at maxing out your retirement accounts such as 401(k) and IRAs. Note that these retirement accounts are applicable to US residents only. Your country’s tax laws might call them something else and treat them accordingly for tax purposes. Please check with your tax advisor.

If you have maxed out your retirement accounts, you are killing it! Congrats!! Now, it is really a question of how to choose to invest the remaining money into income generating assets. There are several options available to you depending on your preferences and risk tolerance. My personal preference is to use part of my capital and invest in high-quality businesses that will pay me back cash in the form of dividends. Your strategy might be something else. There is no one right/wrong answer here. It depends. The key here is you are making financially sound decisions to invest in yourself and securing your future.

I would love to hear your views on this subject. Please let me know by dropping a comment below.

Photo courtesy: Damir Spanic

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