There’s this image, right? Guys yelling into landlines. Palpable excitement in the room. Sweat. Testosterone. The phones get slammed down upon sale. Brokers with their sleeves rolled up. Money going places. Bells ringing.
But just what if—what if—you made the perfect trade at the perfect moment? Say you heard about a strike at the plant, and the bike messenger who was supposed to bring the information got hit by a car right in front of you. What if you bought or sold before that information became public? Could you quit your job? Could you build a portfolio?
The answer is no. Do not do that. There is not a single other thing worth less of your time, and I’d be happy to show you why.
Forgetting my online-brokerage password was the best financial decision I ever made.
Between the twin recessions of 2001 and 2008, Google launched its IPO with zero business model. Six years previously, it had been a dorm-room startup (albeit, at the Standford graduate school). To make it worse, they offered their bankers 2.805% in fees. The founders were brash. They were dangerous. They gave interviews in Playboy that contained investor information not included in their prospectus. People were pissed:
“If they had paid the bankers maybe a buck a share commission, then maybe my banker at J.P. Morgan would have been making outbound calls, telling everyone to buy this thing,” said Mark Pincus, who obtained several hundred thousand shares of Google through the auction. “But they didn’t pay it, so it was like trying to sell your house but asking your real estate broker to do it for free because it’s such a beautiful house.” — New York Times
Even though it looked like a turd on paper, the founders were now each worth $2 billion.
With an initial public offering of $85 a share, it opened trades at $100 and closed at $105. Google employees were issued stock, which they could not move for six months. Which was a shame, because it took a dive. However, it took a dive in exactly the amount of time that it took me to figure out how to buy stock online.
I was three months out of college, and I had a line of credit just large enough to buy myself a PowerBook G4. Like most amateur investors, I’d hoped to make a quick buck and maybe go on vacation. However, the website I used to buy the shares had a very complicated password-authentication system. I was able to log in once and never again.
Forgetting that password was the best financial decision I ever made. If you’d bought $10,000 of Google stock that summer, you would have $139,458.82 in August 2014. Technically, that means over 10 years, my tiny piece of Google has made a compound annualized return of 30.15%. Warren Buffett’s best is about 19.4%.
Don’t kick yourself for sleeping in that day. There were plenty of ways to make financial boners in 2004. Here are some of mine:
• If I’d bought Apple stock instead of that $1,599 12-inch PowerBook G4 that summer (a worthless lump that now can’t even run Chrome), it would have been worth $67,607 in 2012. (My roommate had the 17-inch at $2,999. His stock would be worth $160,827.)
• If instead of having two to three cups of coffee a day ($1,470) I’d bought stock in the plastic coffee-pod company Keurig Green Mountain in 2004, it would be worth $115,090 today.
• Netflix? If you got a library card and bought in at $1,585, you’d have $46,600.
Now, stop crying. Here’s the bright side. Stocks go up and down all the time. That’s why you need to leave your stocks alone. If you bought $75.25 in Amazon stock instead of a discount DVD player in 2000, you’d have about $5.51 in 2001. If you bought $165 of Priceline instead of a discount hotel room, you’d have $1.05. Yahoo? $238.50 soon became $8.45.
You will drive yourself crazy with this. So try not to think about how that garbage $5 Amazon stock that you could have bought for about the cost of shipping a used copy of my book for $0.01 would now be worth $303.64. (Spend no time thinking how you could have sold at $75, bought back at $5 and come out with $4,554.60 today.)
The news reports love finding those savant investors. In 1995 it was the best seller The Beardstown Ladies Common-Sense Investment Guide. Sweet old grannies who got a 23.9% return over a decade. Take that S&;P 500’s 14.9%! They sold more than a million books (their best investment) by touting common sense and Christian virtues. Unfortunately, the accounting firm Price Waterhouse had to be called in.
All told, they made about 9.1%, six points below what they would have made using the Gentleman Investor Method, a.k.a. doing nothing. (I’ll explain.)
Here’s why you’re not making any money on your trades:
Today you buy a stock for $100. Tomorrow it is worth $125. Hooray! Sell! You just beat the S&P. Only not you have to pay a transaction fee of, say, $6. So your stock is worth $119. Oh, also, your earnings are subject to capital-gains tax.
Tomorrow, one of your stocks doubled because there was a hurricane and you invested in sandbags. Hooray! The odds of your investing in sandbags when no one else did and not putting any money into Academy Crepe Paper Tents Company are low.
In order to just beat the average, you would have to pick the perfect stock 70% of the time. It would be like being told you could either bat .700 or walk the winning run of every game. Why be a showboat? Also, no one in Major League Baseball bats .700. (No one on Wall Street does either).
If you had a boss who ran your company like most people buy stocks, you would think they were out of their mind. “We’re in the business of selling gold today!” “Gold was yesterday’s news, we’re buying failing newspapers!” “Drones!” “Chocolate!”
So why all the yelling? The guys in blousy dress shirts and the landlines? The product that brokers are selling isn’t the stock — it’s a small bit of information, plus their commission. They make money when you lose your kid’s college savings. They make money when you bet it all on Amazon. They make money. You don’t.
How to Be a Gentleman Investor
• Don’t listen to stock tips. It’s like the telephone game, only you don’t know how many other people heard it first and jacked up the price. If you get one good one and one bad one, you’ve already wasted your gains.
• Start today. Everyone thinks, superstitiously, that they can pick the perfect stock ideas at the perfect time. They’re just as likely to be right as your grandma is by picking your birthday as her lotto number. You can’t. The only thing you can do is increase your timeline.
• Invest in a broad range of securities. I mean everything. Stuff you wouldn’t even buy at Target. Coca-Cola, Nestle, Johnson & Johnson. A broker can’t do this because a broker has customers. And the customer is always right.
Is that as exciting as calling it on Google? Nah. But honestly, if you just put $1,000 in this plan, it would be worth $2,000 today. You doubled your money in 10 years and never once had to read The Economist. If your parents had $10,000 in 1964 and used this method, they’d have $1 million today. So get going now, and you’ll have some outrageous figure by 2054.
That’s the jargon-free version. If you want all the juicy details, there’s a new edition of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, the time-tested book about it from the 1970s. It now includes our current Silicon Valley mania and hilarious stories from the 1999 Internet bubble. It also includes time-tested jokes that have surely kept Wall Street bros in stitches all these years (“Portfolio theory begins with the premise that all investors are like my wife — they are risk averse.” “A firm’s income statement may be likened to a bikini — what it reveals is interesting, but what it conceals is vital.”)
Speaking of vital information, I really need to find that password.