Cow Sense or Common Sense?

We’re about to share with you the secret to avoiding a $10 billion investing mistake (not that any of us have $10 billion to lose, but hey, you never know). It’s not more money, a higher IQ, or superb market timing.  It’s mind control.

The way we’re wired — our natural inclinations to seek more information, look for patterns, compare options, and even flee to safety — is great at keeping us out of harm’s way. But these same emotional tendencies are also our biggest liability when we’re in investing mode. In other words, your brain is to blame for all those “no cow sense” money mistakes.

Just ask super-investor Warren Buffett. The man widely acknowledged to be the world’s greatest investor openly admits that a short in his analytical circuitry — his “thumb-sucking” reluctance (Buffett’s words) in the 1980s to pick up more shares of US supermarket giant Wal-Mart because of a small uptick in the share price — cost him $10 billion in potential profits over time.

And this is from a guy who has famously said, “Success in investing doesn’t correlate with IQ … what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

In other words, Warren Buffett made a $10 billion investing blunder because his emotional brain got in the way.

How to achieve investing success

And now, the information you’ve been waiting for. The secret ingredients to investing success, regardless of education, investing styles, or golf handicaps: timeline and temperament.

Timeline: As we mentioned previously, investing in shares requires a minimum five-year time horizon. Think of it like sending some of your money on holiday while your other money takes care of the more immediate chores, like paying for groceries, your electricity bill, a house, or your child’s private education.

We know it can be hard to be a long-term investor in a short-term world — which brings us to the second secret ingredient for investing greatness.

Temperament: Successful investors have the ability to remain calm and level-headed when everyone around them is freaking out, and following the advice of the aunties at the neighbourhood wet market. That mindset makes the difference between investors who consistently outperform the market and investors who get lucky for a while. Except for the Walmart example, Warren Buffett says this is the key to his success. When a group of business-school students asked Buffett why so few have been able to replicate his investing success, his reply was simple: “The reason gets down to temperament.”

Money, IQ points, and lucky charms are no help when your investment is down 50%. But if you can keep your emotions in check and ignore the noise, you’ll be able to hang on, rather than selling out at the worst times. If you look back at history and study how investing fortunes were made, you’ll find it wasn’t by jumping in and out of shares based on fear and greed, but by buying great businesses and investing in them over the long haul.

Hop off the emotional roller coaster

To cultivate a good temperament — one that focuses on the long term, not the short term, and ignores the crowd in favour of a well-thought-out strategy – you need to build resistance to the emotional triggers that lead to bad investment decisions. Here are a few exercises we regularly do to keep our cool:

Memorise this affirmation: “I am an investor; I am not a speculator.” All together now: “I am an investor; I am not a speculator.” As investors, we:

Buy shares in solid businesses. We expect to be rewarded over time largely through share price appreciation and dividends.

Don’t time the market.  And we certainly don’t speculate when we buy shares. Speculation is what traders and gamblers do. Keep your speculative activities confined to Sands Macao.

Focus on the value of the businesses we invest in. We try not to fixate on the day-to-day movements in share prices.

Buy to hold. We buy shares with the intention of holding them for long haul. (That said, we are willing to sell for reasons we outline in Step 12.)

We recognise that believing your affirmation is sometimes easier than living it. To avoid behaving like a speculator …

Tune out the noise: Put down the newspaper, stop getting your “share tips” from the uncle at the kopitiam, stop reading emails from speculators pumping the merits of some dubious manufacturing company in inland China, and stop looking at your portfolio at every “spare” moment. None of it is doing you any good.

Fixating on the market’s minute-to-minute news won’t help you make your next brilliant financial move. At best, all the hours, days, and weeks spent soaking in sensational stories might help you impress some colleagues during lunch, but mostly it’s all noise, and it’s costing you a serious amount of sound sleep — and maybe even some actual money.

Spread out your risk: In order to get some quality sleep, you need a solid asset-allocation plan — meaning a portfolio with a load of investments that don’t always move in the same direction. You need to diversify. For more details on diversification, go back one step.

Putting an assortment of eggs in various baskets isn’t the only way to spread your risk. You can also avoid the risk of investing in a company at exactly the wrong time. Say you’re interested in buying shares of Want Want China, but you just don’t know when to pull the trigger. The answer? Use the shotgun approach.

Practically speaking, you do this through dollar-cost averaging — accumulating shares in a company over time by investing a certain dollar amount regularly, through up and down periods. So every month for three months, you purchase $20,000 of Want Want China shares, regardless of the share price. The beauty of this system is that when the shares slump, you’re buying more, and when it’s pricier, you’re buying less.

“Buying in thirds” is another way to average in to an investment: Simply divide the total dollar amount you want to devote to a particular investment by three, and pick three different points in time to add to your position.

Note: Unlike US stocks, HK stocks have lot sizes (200, 400, 1,000, 2,000, etc.), which makes dollar-cost averaging more difficult to practise – particularly for those stocks which require a huge dollar amount to buy just one lot.

Stay strong, think long! For Fools, investing success is not measured in minutes, months, or even a year or two: We pick our investments for their long-term potential. So resist the urge to act all the time. Make decisions with a cool head after letting new information sink in. Sometimes the best action to take is no action at all.

Distract yourself with something useful: If you’re going to obsess about your investments, use your time productively and review your investment philosophy and process. For example, pick any investment that’s interrupting your sleep. Write down why you bought the business in the first place. Ask yourself: Has any of that fundamentally changed? This exercise underscores that short-term ups and downs in the share market have little relevance to winning long-term investments and wealth generation.

If you don’t already have one, start a watch list so you can keep up with the companies that pique your interest. And add your list to a portfolio tracker so that you’ll have all the company news in one place.

When preparation meets opportunity, great investments are made.