Detailed investing book – endorsed by Warren Buffett – is an encyclopedia on investing

March 25, 2021

The incomparable Warren Buffett calls The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham, “the best book on investing ever written.”

And it is Buffett himself who provides a forward and appendix notes on the latest, revised edition of this classic investing text by Graham, his mentor.

This is not a book you can sit down and breeze through in a day or two – Graham’s original work is deep on statistics, charts, and examples, and the updated commentary is no less detailed.

The book contrasts speculation with investing. The book talks about the so-called dot.com bubble earlier this century, a time when, with “technology stocks… doubling in value every day, the notion that you could lose almost all your money seemed absurd.” However, the book notes, by 2002 many stocks had lost 95 per cent of their value.

“Once you lose 95 per cent of your money, you have to gain 1,900 per cent just to get back to where you started,” the book notes. Avoiding losses, the book states, is a central platform for intelligent investing.

While there’s a place for speculation, writes Graham, “there are many ways in which speculation may be unintelligent. Of these, the foremost are: (1) speculating when you think you are investing; (2) speculating seriously instead of as a pastime, when you lack proper knowledge and skill for it; and (3) risking more money in speculation than you can afford to lose.”

By contrast, defensive intelligent investors must confine themselves “to the shares of important companies with a long record of profitable operations and in strong financial condition.” These choices must be based on “intelligent analysis,” the book explains.

Bonds can’t be overlooked, Graham writes. “Even high-quality stocks cannot be a better purchase than bonds under all conditions.” Both belong in people’s portfolios, he states.

While a 50-50 stocks/bonds portfolio is a sensible mix, Graham says you should allow yourself to go up to 75/25 in either category when conditions warrant.

While bonds are considered “less risky” than even good preferred stocks, Graham warns they aren’t completely safe. “A bond is clearly unsafe when it defaults its interest or principal payments,” he explains – and the same risk exists when a stock reduces or cancels its dividend.

On the idea of buying low and selling high, Graham suggests it is better for people “to do stock buying whenever (they) have money to put in stocks, except when the general market level is much higher than can be justified by well-established standards of value.”

The book warns about buying into funds or securities that are on a hot streak. “If a manager happens to be in the right corner of the markets at just the right time, he will look brilliant,” we are told. But, the book warns, the market’s hottest sector “often turns as cold as liquid nitrogen, with blinding speed and utterly no warning.” Buying stocks or funds based on past performance “is one of the stupidest things an investor can do,” the authors conclude.

On do-it-yourself investing, Graham is clear.

“There is no reason at all for thinking that the average intelligent investor, even with much devoted effort, can derive better results over the years from the purchase of growth stocks than the investment companies specializing in this area,” he writes. “Surely these organizations have more brains and better research facilities at their disposal than you do.”

The commentary section for this chapter expands the argument. While some people believe that “the really big fortunes from common stocks… have been made by people who packed all their money into one investment they knew supremely well,” Warren Buffett says “almost no small fortunes have been made this way – and not many big fortunes have been kept this way.”

Diversification is key, he warns, or else you will “stand by and wince at the sickening crunch as the constantly changing economy” crushes your only basket and all your eggs.

“If you build a diversified basket of stocks whose current assets are at least double their current liabilities, and whose long-term debt does not exceed working capital, you should end up with a group of conservatively financed companies with plenty of staying power,” the book advises.

A tip about Buffett is that he “likes to snap up a stock when a scandal, big loss, or other bad news passes over it like a storm cloud.” He bought into Coca-Cola after the disastrous “New Coke” launch in 1985.

This is a heavy read, but it’s well worth the effort.

If you’re looking for diversification in your retirement savings, consider the Saskatchewan Pension Plan. SPP’s Balanced Fund presently features 50 per cent equities (Canadian, American and non-North American) with the other 50 per cent in bonds, mortgages, real estate, short-term investments and infrastructure. That’s a lot of baskets for those precious retirement nest eggs.

Written by Martin Biefer

Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.

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