Modern finance has three perspectives on the workings of the stock market. Inefficient, semi-efficient, and perfectly efficient. For the most part, market observers nowadays believe in a semi to perfectly efficient market. That is to say, information regarding a company is priced into its stock almost instantaneously.
Financial statisticians devote years churning out data to prove that the market, for the most part, is extremely efficient in factoring in new information. And stock prices: barring insider information and uncouth accounting manipulation, is an accurate barometer of the intrinsic value of the company.
Except this is hardly the case. The assumption of market rationality can only be taken so far. We have all seen what happened to the market during the tech bubble and the now real estate bubble. Waves of market decline we are witnessing now may very well signal irrational pessimism: there are many businesses now trading well below their intrinsic value.
Now we need to separate the true investors from the speculators.
Most market experts are behind the notion that buying low and selling high is the right approach to investing. In other words, a successful investor should consistently buy at the lowest point in the market and sell at the point of irrational exuberance. Considering nobody has a crystal ball and thus very few can consistently “time” the market successfully, the industry of technical trading sneaks its way into the investing world. Jargon like resistance, support, and moving average enter the popular vocabulary. Many people go for it hook, line, and sinker, then get burned attempting the impossible. The impossible being trying to outsmart everybody by applying the gambling mentality to investing.
And then there’s Warren Buffet and his disciples. First, they separate the notion of using stock prices to measure the value of a business. They distrust the oscillatory swings of the market and the speculative herd that drive it. Buffet views buying stocks or bonds akin to owning a slice of the business. If the business is sound, why worry about fluctuations in price? Secondly, the timing issue is eliminated. Berkshire Hathaway does not seek to enter the market at the lowest price, nor exist at the top. Instead, BH makes a point of exiting the market as soon as the stocks are thought to be overvalued, thus providing its shareholders a fair return on their investment regardless of their chosen time of exit.
What a relief, to take back control instead of beholden to a schizophrenic market.
Which brings us back to you as an individual investor. Sure, it would be hard to own a piece of the business you invest in without Buffet’s capital base. But it does bring the point home that you don’t need, nor want to be an opportunist when it comes to investing. If you do bring the gambling mentality into the investment game, then be prepared to lose it all.
But if you are firm in your belief in the competent management and health of a business, and embrace the fact that the market has always been, and will always be driven by greed and fear. If you concede that the market will rarely place a fair or correct value on the stock, but trust that sooner or later, the market will correct itself, then you can sleep much better at night.
picture source: roseandthorn