What's Your Advantage?

If you don’t want to put all your faith in luck, you need to have an advantage to beat the market over the long haul. But The Motley Fool’s Morgan Housel says that many investors don’t really think about what their advantage is — or whether they even have one.

Housel notes that, late in his life, value guru Benjamin Graham actually talked about how he thought stock-picking wasn’t for most investors. So many investors had adopted the in-depth, analytical techniques Graham pioneered that it had become tougher to make money with them. Housel thus asked The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig, who wrote the commentary and footnotes in the latest updated version of Graham’s classic The Intelligent Investor, if he thought that meant Graham would have simply had all his money in index funds today. “No, I don’t think so,” Zweig said. “He would advise knowing your advantages and your disadvantages, and not playing a game you have no advantages in.”

That led Housel to think about what his own advantages might be when it comes to stock picking. He offers a couple that pertain to individual investors, including “time”. “I’m patient to the point of obsessive when it comes to delayed gratification,” he says. “I bought stocks all the way down in 2008 and 2009, dreaming about what they’d be worth in 2038 and 2039. That’s a big advantage over Wall Street, whose definition of ‘long term’ is the time between Lightning Round segments on CNBC. If Wall Street is thinking about the next ten months, and you’re thinking about the next ten years, case closed — that’s your advantage.”

Two other advantages individual investors can have, Housel says: the ability to think about stocks as businesses, not stocks, and a steadfast belief in reversion to the mean. “It’s simple stuff, but it’s one of the most powerful forces in finance because, by definition, only a small portion of investors can be contrarians,” he says of mean reversion. “It’s much easier to say ‘I’ll be greedy when others are fearful’ than to actually do it. But those who can truly train themselves to be skeptical of outperformance and attracted to underperformance will likely do better than most. They have an advantage.”


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