Needful Things

Satanic_Leland_Gaunt

Mr. Gaunt steepled his fingers under his chin. “Perhaps it isn’t even a book at all. Perhaps all the really special things I sell aren’t what they appear to be. Perhaps they are actually gray things with only one remarkable property—the ability to take shapes of those things which haunt the dreams of men and women.” He paused, then added thoughtfully: “Perhaps they are dreams themselves.”

–Stephen King, Needful Things

If your job is to sell people stuff, the path of least resistance goes something like this:

1)      Sell cheeseburgers to fat people

2)      Sell advice on giving up cheeseburgers to fat people

The point here isn’t to poke fun at fat people. The point is that “fat person” is an identity with a lot connotations attached to it. One might go so far as to call those connotations “baggage.”

Other identities with a lot of connotations attached to them include: “retiree,” “former executive,” “doctor,” and “little old lady who wants a good rate on her CDs.”

We’ve all got identities. We’ve all got baggage. We’ve all got cravings.

Salespeople know this.

I opened this with a quote from Stephen King’s novel. Needful Things. In the novel, Leland Gaunt sells trinkets. The trinkets take the form of something that matters to you. Whatever triggers your deepest desires and fears. And, of course, Leland Gaunt’s willing to give you a deal on that particular item. All he asks in return is a little favor…

You go into Leland Gaunt’s shop thinking you’ll shell out some cash for a trinket. A rare baseball card. A lampshade. A religious relic. But the true cost is your soul.

Investment products, too, are things that matter. They trigger powerful emotions. You come to associate them with your aspirations, hopes and dreams.

People who sell financial products know this. People who sell deals know this.

“Oh, so you’re a Little Old Lady Worried About The Market? We’ve got an equity indexed annuity for you.”

“Sophisticated allocator? I see private equity co-invests have caught your eye.”

“Tech entrepreneur? Have you ever looked at crossover biotech funds?”

The Leland Gaunts of the investment world traffic in symbols and memes:

Yield!

Diversification!

Innovation!

Security!

Sophistication!

Tax Breaks!

Deals!

I hate to break it to you purists, but most investments aren’t sold on the basis of future expected cash flows. Most deals are sold as little gray things that will satisfy whatever cravings you’ve got as a retiree or endowment CIO or little old lady looking for the best rate on a CD. Whatever matters to you, there’s a broker out there who will sell it to you.

And you’ll probably get a deal.

Caveat emptor.

 

(major h/t to Epsilon Theory for inspiring this post)

A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

Lieutenant Briggs: You just killed three police officers, Harry. And the only reason why I’m not gonna kill you, is because I’m gonna prosecute you–with your own system. It’ll be my word against yours. Who’s gonna believe you? You’re a killer, Harry. A maniac.

[Briggs starts to drive away when the car blows up]

Harry Callahan: A man’s got to know his limitations.

That’s the end of the 1973 movie Magnum Force. Briggs, a vigilante cop, has an opportunity to shoot Harry Callahan dead. But Briggs is an egomaniac convinced of his own moral superiority. He opts for a clever revenge scheme instead. He flees in a car, which, unbeknowst to him, has a live bomb in the backseat.

A man’s got to know his limitations.

I was moved to reflect on this after a recent due diligence trip. In investing, outcomes are inherently uncertain. We never have perfect information when making investment decisions. We’re lucky to have “good” information in most cases. Even then, unexpected events have a nasty habit of blowing up our plans.

Investing is an exercise in probabilistic thinking. Outcomes do not necessarily reflect the quality of decisions (good investment decisions often result in bad outcomes and vice versa).

When investing, you’ve got to know your limitations.

If you’re a typical outside minority passive investor, you have minimal control over investment outcomes. Basically, the only variable you can control is your own behavior.

You need to be realistic about what you can and can’t know, and the kinds of things you should and shouldn’t expect to get right. The more you can expect to get a decision right, the more time you should spend on that area. Don’t waste time on things that aren’t knowable, or things subject to lots of random noise.

 

Things I Will Never Get Right

Forecasts for prices and other variables. (This would seem obvious but it never ceases to amaze me how much time and energy is wasted here)

Timing, in the sense of trying to buy the bottom tick or sell the top tick.

Macroeconomics.

Intrinsic value. (It’s not observable)

 

Things I Should Get Right More Than Half The Time

The general quality of a given management team.

The general quality of a given business.

Industry dynamics, competitive forces and secular trends.

The potential range of outcomes for a given investment.

 

Things I Should Get Right Most Of The Time

The handful of key variables that will make or break an investment.

How I’ll know if I’m wrong about any of the key variables that will make or break an investment.

Assessing the major “go-to-zero” risks: leverage, liquidity, concentration, technological obsolescence and fraud.

When to average down, when to hold and when to sell out of an investment, not based on price action but on the key drivers and risks.