In the late 1950s, in his book Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, Phil Fisher recommended making investment decisions based on “scuttlebutt,” the kind of information an investor could get by asking around. This entailed tracking down and interrogating customers and competitors, employees, and former employees. Doing research, in the sense of gathering evidence and analyzing it to reach a conclusion, was hard work, but enabled analysts committed to such intellectual labor to obtain an edge over their competitors simply by having better, and more complete, information.
Indeed, when I started my career in investing in the late 1970s, obtaining even basic financial info about a German car company still required going to Germany and knocking on the company’s door.
Now gathering information no longer takes much effort. We are deluged by floods of data—not only the details of prices, volumes, margins, and capital investments of individual companies, but also highly granular data about credit card receipts, numbers of cars in parking lots, or words used in media reports. These new, “alternative” sources of information have briefly given some stock pickers a slight edge in predicting short-term stock price movements. The informational advantage provided by such data is but fleeting, however; once this data is commercially accessible to everyone, the advantage disappears. Thus, even for the short-term investor, information gathering itself no longer provides a lasting edge.
For long-term investors, the relationship to information has changed even more fundamentally. You no longer need to seek information; it finds you. Your job, rather, is to act as what Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, called an “intelligent filter”—determining the information that is important and ignoring data that (in the case of the investor) doesn’t help you forecast cash flows and estimate the value of a security.
The fact that filtering information is the long-term investor’s task, of course, doesn’t prevent most from feverishly pursuing every bit of information they can about the companies they follow. Egged on by the 24/7 news cycle, internet chat rooms, and by data providers to know their companies in as much depth as possible, investors often seek to become experts in every aspect of each company’s business. It’s dubious whether this helps them make better estimates of what a company’s shares are worth. Instead, the evidence suggests that, beyond a certain amount, each extra piece of information has zero marginal impact on forecast accuracy. The impact remains positive, however, on the investor’s confidence in their forecast.
The evidence suggests that, beyond a certain amount, each extra piece of information has zero marginal impact on forecast accuracy. The impact remains positive, however, on the investor’s confidence in their forecast.
In one unpublished study, described in Winning Decisions by J. Edward Russo and Paul J. H. Schoemaker, people who handicap horse races were asked to predict, based on increasing amounts of information, which horse would win a race. They found that, beyond a very limited amount of data, forecast accuracy did not improve with more data, but the handicappers’ confidence in their forecasts continued to grow with each extra bit of information.
Knowing more makes you feel better, in other words, but doesn’t help your decision-making. In investing, feelings and actual results arguably are even more disconnected. After all, feeling good about a decision is rarely a help in successful investing—to have a good outcome, an investment view must be different from that of most other investors, and standing apart from the herd almost always leads to discomfort.
Sitting on Our Asses
The job of an investment analyst, then, when forecasting a company’s business prospects and the price that should be paid for its stock is to distinguish between what is important—the signal—and what is useless noise. That’s what we do at Harding Loevner. Our “common language” is designed to guide investment collaboration by helping us focus on low-frequency signals that are important to a long-term investment thesis and avoid being distracted by torrents of high-frequency information that obscure the relevant underlying issues.
We recognize that our industry has an extensive tradition of emphasizing high-frequency signals to induce transacting. In the past, much of the revenue associated with financial services was transaction-based. Brokers were paid only when customers transacted (indeed, when I started my career, so were investment managers!). Unsurprisingly, brokers devoted great effort to stimulating customers to act. Customers responded as you’d expect them to—humans like action, not sitting still. Although the investment management industry has shifted in recent years to replace commissions with asset-based fees, there remains a popular expectation that a good investor will be active, including taking advantage of the most readily available and highest-frequency bits of information: stock price movements (both up and down).
Few investors, though, are able to capture any benefit from high-frequency signals. Our analysts don’t even look at stock prices until a company has been thoroughly researched and qualified as meeting our quality and growth criteria, its long-term cash flows have been forecast, and the fair value of its shares estimated.
Stock prices are much more volatile than the underlying qualities of the business they are supposed to reflect. Investors should remember the words of Charlie Munger, who said successful investing is a matter of “finding a few great companies, then you can sit on your ass.”1 Of course, while we spend a lot of time following Mr. Munger’s advice, that doesn’t mean we are sitting still. We are constantly questioning our assumptions, testing our hypotheses, updating our information and, occasionally, as a result, changing our minds. Usually, though, ignoring the calls of those whose business model, if not entire worldview, revolves around urging you to move is the key to success.
Compounding the Effect
An investment process structured around the long term, and asking questions about long-term strategy not short-term results, will focus on a few fundamental signals that show a company’s progress in creating value for its shareholders. It will focus on competitive structure of an industry, and durable competitive advantages, rather than on the outcomes of the recent past. It will take what you’ve learned and use that to forecast a company’s investments in its business and the cash flows those investments should generate over long periods of time. Only then can you make an informed guess as to what a company is worth and compare it to what the market is inviting you to pay.
A process focused on the long term also recognizes the importance of compounding—that over a long holding period, even if you did overpay, the rate at which a company continually reinvests its cash flows will be a much more important contributor to your return. In an era when information is so democratized, our one true edge is an ability to latch onto a few incremental competitive advantages that we’ve identified in a company, and allow the company to do its job over the long term and provide the power of compounding to our clients’ portfolios.
In an era when information is so democratized, our one true edge is an ability to latch onto a few incremental competitive advantages that we’ve identified in a company, and allow the company to do its job over the long term and provide the power of compounding to our clients’ portfolios.
Humans invariably underestimate this phenomenon. Compound interest is one of the wonders of the world, yet few people understand how powerful it is. It appears our brains are designed to deal with linear, not exponential progressions.
If there was any doubt about our difficulty in intuiting the power of exponential growth rates, look at how unperturbed most people were a year or so ago when COVID-19 began spreading, first in tiny increments. People could not grasp what the impact of a very standard exponential growth curve could be until it was sloping nearly vertically upwards.
A long investment time-horizon also benefits from the long term being more predictable, despite being the sum of a series of short-terms. When some luck is involved, individual outcomes are unpredictable, but the rules of probability dominate as the number of independent trials and outcomes increase. The outcome of a single spin of a roulette wheel, a roll of dice, or draw of a card is unpredictable, but in the long run the house’s victory is as near a certainty as we can get in this world.
Our job is to turn the coins we toss into unevenly weighted ones, by being disciplined about the information we use, diligent in our research, and allowing the companies in which we invest our clients’ capital to do the heavy lifting for us.
1Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting, 2000.