Speculating on stocks; how much is OK?

Twitter IPOAs I mentioned in my last post, my 19 y.o. son’s online business is doing quite well …

… well enough for him to start thinking about investing in stocks. Or, real-estate.

But, right now, he’s thinking mainly about stocks.

Unfortunately, his thoughts are more towards Tesla and Twitter than GE and Unilever.

At least, he knows they (TSLA and TWTR) are speculative 😉

So, this is how the conversation went:

AJC Jr: I want to invest in Twitter. How much should I invest? I have quite a bit set aside …

Me: How much you have to invest is the least important part of your decision-making process.

AJC Jr: Oh! What’s the most important part, then?

Me: Well, son, you’re considering speculating in a technology stock that could go in any direction. How much to invest actually depends mostly on how much you’re prepared to lose?

AJC Jr: Hmmm. In that case, I think I’m prepared to lose $10k.

Me: OK. Now, how far do you think the stock is likely to fall.

AJC Jr: I think it’s going to go up!

Me: Of course you do 😉 BUT, if it does fall, how far do you think it will go … worst case?

AJC Jr: If I wait for a while – for all the IPO hype to die down – and buy Twitter at more reasonable $30 a share, then I think the most it will go down is $10.

Me: In that case, if you are prepared to lose $10k and you only think the stock will drop by 1/3 worst case, then you could invest up to $30,000.

AJC Jr: But, I could afford to invest a lot more in stocks!

Me: Sure! Just not in risky stocks … and, not more than $30k in Twitter. Now, take look at this stock chart for a nice, safe, boring trash dumping company I’m considering investing in …

When investing, decide if you’re in it for the long-term, or if you are simply blindly following some boom/bust tech trend; if the latter, look at how much you’re prepared to lose and make your decision on how much to invest based on that.


How to catch a monkey …

Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 8.59.32 AMI’m always amazed by people who think that they can make ‘quick bucks’ (or, its sister currency: ‘easy bucks’) just by fiddling with paper …

… if trading stocks, options, FOREX, or commodities is something that you really want to do, I should at least teach you all that you really need to know before you begin.

And, it all has to do with catching monkeys …

But, rather than hearing it from me, far better to learn from the masters at Goldman Sachs, whom – or, so I am told by a very unreliable source – share this story with every new hire on their very first day of training:

Once upon a time in a village, a man announced to the villagers that he would buy monkeys for $10 each. The villagers, seeing that there were many monkeys around, went out to the forest and started catching them.

The man bought thousands at $10 and as supply started to diminish, the villagers stopped their effort.

He further announced that he would now buy at $20 each. This renewed the efforts of the villagers and they started catching monkeys again.

Soon the supply diminished even further and people started going back to their farms. The offer rate increased to $25 for each monkey captured and the supply of monkeys became so little that it was an effort to even see a monkey, let alone catch it!

The man now announced that he would buy monkeys at $50!

However, since he had to go to the city on some business, his assistant would now buy on behalf of him.

In the absence of the man, the assistant told the villagers, “Look at all these monkeys in the big cage that the man has collected. I will sell them to you at $35 apiece and when the man returns from the city, you can sell each monkey back to to him for $50 each. He’ll be none the wiser and we’ll all have made some easy money!”

The villagers squeezed together all their savings and bought all the monkeys.

Then they never saw the man nor his assistant again … of course, now there were monkeys everywhere!?!

That’s how trading really works; welcome to ‘Goldman Sachs’!

[Source: http://www.quora.com/Jokes/Which-are-some-of-the-most-profound-jokes-ever/answers/1170178]

So, before you begin trading, consider this:

EVERY trade is two-sided.

This means that if you WIN some other shmuck has to LOSE. Sounds a bit like a poker game, doesn’t it?

If you agree, it would be wise to remember a very important saying in the world of professional poker:

If you can’t see who the shmuck is at the table … it’s you!

So it goes with trading: for every trade there is a counter-trade, and it’s probably being made by somebody with more experience than you …

… since so much institutional money passes through the various markets each day your ‘adversary’ is most likely a professional investor.

Now, let me ask you:

Would you play heads up poker with a professional poker player for anything other than the learning experience or fun?

Or, do you  really think you can turn a long-term profit catching monkeys? 😉

The best place to keep your savings …

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 7.46.21 PM
Where do you keep your money if you want to buy a house in, say, 7 years?

If you keep it in the bank, you’ll find rates up around 5% if you can commit to a 5 year term.

Given that inflation is currently running around 1.7%, you’re heading for a very small gain.

That’s why many choose to put their money into mutual funds

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 2.38.40 PM

Despite the crash, returns from investing in a low-cost Index Fund (say, one that mirrors the S&P500) have been up to 28.6% for any 5 year period that you care to nominate in the past 85+ years.

Now, that’s certainly a lot better than CD’s (long-term bank deposits).

But, there’s a catch … and, it’s a big one!

Whilst’s CD’s virtually guarantee their admittedly paltry return, there’s no guarantees in the stock market …

… and, there has been at least one 5 year period where the S&P500 has lost 12.5%.

But, let’s look at the downside v the upside: that’s a potential 12.5% loss each year for the 5 years … compounded (meaning your savings will halve in a little less than 7 years) … but, you may gain up to 28.6% annual return (meaning you may double your savings every 2 years).

Compare that to the measly 5% return (before inflation) from CD’s and it seems like no contest, which is why many Americans are opting to use mutual funds as a mid-term savings vehicle, but …

It’s a huge mistake.

You see, it might be fine if you already had the deposit for the house saved up, and you were just setting it aside for 7 years. If so, and if this were me, I might very well elect to buy units in a low cost Index Fund rather than scraping by with a CD.

But, if I had the deposit already, I would more likely just go ahead and buy the house now, and rent it out if I wasn’t yet ready to live in it.

But, the reality is that most people need that 7 years to save for their deposit. And, that’s a whole different ballgame, because now you are putting aside a little every month and, over that 7 year period, slowly building up your deposit.

This means, your money is really only going to sit in your investment or savings account on average just for 3 years.

Now, your risk of loss is up to 27%, almost as much as your potential gain of up to 31%, and that means you are gambling, not saving.

This is one of very few cases that I have found where common financial wisdom is correct …

… the minimum period for committing your funds to the stock market should be 5 to 10 years, assuming you are not prepared to gamble with your starting capital.

And, if you are prepared to play the market, well, that’s a subject for a whole other post

So – and, unfortunately – the best place (indeed, the only sensible place) to keep your money safely parked for up to 7 years is in CD’s 🙁


Investing for dividends is like driving half a car …

half car 2Like this guy, you could probably drive in half a car (at least, if you were smart enough to first select the best half  i.e. the bit with the engine) …

… but why would you want to?

You could take your supplements purely for the extra vitamins, and you may even gain all extra the nutrition that you need …

… but, why wouldn’t you want to take one that has all the trace minerals that you need, as well?

You could probably invest in real-estate solely for the rental income …

… but, why wouldn’t you want to get some capital appreciation, as well?

If you feel the same way as me, why should investing in stocks be any different?!

That’s what I have to ask James @ Dinks Finance who says:

Dude, dividend stocks are not substandard investments. They may not yield as much as directly investing in your own business, but they can and do produce very respectable returns for many people.

Well, dude, you probably wouldn’t choose to regularly drive half a car; you probably wouldn’t choose to take half a supplement; so, why would you choose half an investment?

And, make no mistake: selecting an investment purely on the basis of its dividends is choosing half an investment.


Well, Matt Kranz of USA Today says:

The total return [of any stock] is a tally of the net gain, or loss, an investor received by owning a stock and receiving the dividend. When you add the change in value of the stock to the dividend, you calculate the investors’ total return.

To calculate total returns on a stock, Matt says:

Start by adding the value of the dividends to the stock price at the end of the period. Subtract from that sum the price of the stock at the start of the period and divide that difference by the price of the stock at the start of the period. Multiply by 100 to get the percentage.

Here’s an example. Say a stock started the year at $20 a share, paid $2 a share in dividends and ended the year at $25 a share. The total return would be:

(27 – 20) / 20 or 35% total return

Dividend investors usually then counter with an anecdote of great personal returns, like this one from Tim:

I don’t know what sort of return you require but I have invested in a number of dividend producing stocks over more than 20 years and at least for my purposes the returns have hardly been sub-standard. Investments in MO, PM and MCD to mention several have provided very nice returns over the years.

But, Tim, if you follow my advice and look for stocks on the basis of their Total Returns rather than just Dividends, then you still may have invested in MO, PM and MCD, but you would also have invested in both AAPL (Apple) and BRK (Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway).

Westwood (a registered investment advisor) explains why chasing high dividends is not always the best strategy:

Generally, the highest yielding stocks are there because investors question (by forcing the price lower and, thus, the yield higher) the long term prospects of the business, and/or whether the payout can continue.

Current day examples include Avon Products, with its high 5.0% yield.

While Avon may be a well-known business, the company carries a lot of debt, and many speculate the dividend will need to be cut to manage this large debt load.

Or, consider the 8.5% yield of Pitney Bowes.

While the absolute yield is attractive, the level of EPS (earnings per share) is flat with 1999 and the stock is at a 20-year low. Again, investors question the long term health of the postage meter market, and Pitney Bowes’ ability to fund its dividend going forward.

So, people who look specifically at stocks that produce dividends are looking at only half the story …

… that’s why I say that investing for dividends is, almost by definition, a sub-standard investment selection methodology:

You may happen to come across the best stocks in the country, but – if you invest in the best returning stocks, regardless of what combination of dividends and/or capital appreciation produces those returns – then you are sure to!

Why I don’t have a wealth manager …

madoffThere’s a debate going on at Quora (the question and answer site) about the cost of wealth managers:

What are the pros and cons of wealth managers vs passively investing in an index fund?

One of the issues is comparative fees:

– Index Funds typically charge 0.07% of funds under management.

– Wealth Managers typically charge 1.00% of assets under management.

So what do you get for the 14 times increase in fee?

Well, I wouldn’t know, because I wouldn’t go near a “wealth manager” with a barge pole …

… but, Scott Burns said it best:

40 years of investing has taught me that rented brains seldom help us build our nest eggs. Rented brains feel a deep spiritual need to build 20,000-square-foot log cabins in Jackson Hole with the return on our money.

It would be OK if that 14 times extra fee equated to extra returns, but the research shows that it really does only buy the wealth manager a good living – not us:

Eugene F. Fama and Kenneth R. French looked into this issue in their working paper titled, Luck versus Skill in the Cross Section of Mutual Fund Returns. Their study focused on U.S. equity mutual fund managers from 1984 to 2006. It’s no surprise that they found that in aggregate, actively-managed U.S. equity mutual funds performed below the market after costs. The big question they were trying answer was did the winning managers have skill or were they just lucky?

So, if you are prepared to read a few books and try a few things, then go ahead and try your own luck in the stock market … failing that, simply put your money into a low-cost index fund – a least, you’ll avoid the heavy management fees!

A brilliant 94 y.o. investor?

Edward Zajac is an amazing man: at 94 he is still alive, sprightly (or so it would appear from his photo), and actively investing his own $2.5 million share portfolio …

… and, is still sharp enough to describe himself as an opportunist.

Wealthy Matters shares Ed’s financial success with his readers (you should read the whole article to learn more about Ed’s ‘EZ’ investing system):

Stick with stocks, says investor Edward Zajac. He should know. The 94-year-old has been trading for 72 years and said he’s made about $2.5 million.

So, should we all aspire – strictly from an investing standpoint (after all, who doesn’t want live to 94 and still be so ‘with it’) – to be like Ed?


According to my calculations, Ed (assuming he started on or around the average salary for college educated technicians “installing computer systems” of $1,900 in 1939) would had to save 50% of his salary until he retired young (at the age of 51) and receive Warren Buffett level stock investing returns (21% compounded) for the entire period!

What I can’t model, because the numbers simply fall short, is how Ed managed to draw enough salary to “travel the US in a recreational vehicle with his wife” after he retired in 1968, yet still manage to double his portfolio again in the 42 years since he retired.

Good on you, Ed, we have a lot to learn from you 🙂

Follow the fundamentals …

The relatively recent gyrations of the stock market from all-time highs to many year lows and back again, and so on, have scared many into pulling their money out of the market … and, keeping it out.

This is a mistake …

Unless you have solid plans (and, expertise) in investing elsewhere, the stock market is a pretty good place to try and build up your warchest.

I would like to see you make major forays into businesses and/or real-estate, as these offer the best opportunity to make money that can be counted in the millions, but the stock market is a pretty good alternative.

And, certainly better than sticking your money in the bank!

The problem is that most people panic during a crash …

What they don’t realize is that crashes will occur around every 10 to 20 years, and recessionary downturns occur every 10 years – more or less – as well.

The question is: which one leads to the other? The answer is not always clear-cut. But, it doesn’t really matter.

You see the market always recovers.

Unless there’s a ‘fundamental change to life as we know it’ (such as the fall of the Roman Empire) the market comes back to life.

Here’s why:

The stock market wasn’t developed as a means to speculate on some random ticker prices, as it has become to many professional traders and certainly to most lay-investors (that’s you and me, bud).

It was developed as a means to share partial ownership (i.e. to raise capital for expansion, etc.) of real, live companies.

Real, live businesses make stuff, sell stuff, and (usually) make a profit in doing so. Their ability to make a profit is more closely related to market forces (i.e. customers, competition, etc.) than it is to economics.

And, their ability to make a profit has virtually zero correlation to stock market sentiment.

Yet here’s what occurs [hypothetical chart]:

The yellow line represents some hypothetical economic indicator (e.g. growth in GDP), and does its thing.

The blue line represents the stock price of a company we are tracking and it rises and falls as prices (both the prices its customers are willing to pay and prices its suppliers feel that they are able to charge) and labor costs and so on rise and fall.

Interestingly, company profits (hence earnings per share) are somewhat related to the economy, but not always obviously: in a down economy, a huge new contract with upfront payments could help to improve company profits; so could a new plant being completed (it was probably commissioned when the economy was looking good!).

However, the red line – which represents the share price of our company – reflects market sentiment: there’s a rumor going around that the ceo is about to be indicted on a racketeering charge, so it goes south very sharply. The ceo, of course, steps aside pending the investigation and in a week or two, there will be an announcement that no charges were made.

Notice that the company still commissions its plant and production goes up; some customers hold off on new purchases because of the rumors (catching up after the ceo steps aside amidst the rumors, and certainly after the charges are eventually dropped) but most contracts were signed weeks/months ago and business generally improves.

The share price, of course, will rebound making some traders very rich.

So, here’s the crux: if you’re a stock trader, you will live by these market sentiment issues; they will misprice the market and/or individual stock prices over and over again and you will make or lose a fortune depending on how well you read things.

But, if you are a stock market investor, you will look to buy future company profits, not future market sentiment.

Investing in market sentiment is gambling, and you can see where that might lead.

But, investing in future company profits is a pretty good game, if you choose good, solid companies and simply close your eyes when the market plays its little games.

Just ask Warren Buffett 😉


Dividends: real cashflow or fake cashflow?

If you’ve noticed, I made a couple of adjustments to this blog:

The first is that I have reduced my posting schedule to (generally) twice a week; I’m trying for a Mon./Thur. posting schedule, but – if you enjoy reading this blog (near-future multi-millionaires need only apply!) – your best bet is to sign up for the RSS/e-mail feed on my home page because I’m fickle … if I get the urge, I’ll post daily, or simply shift days to suit my increasingly challenged schedule 🙂

The second is that I’m posting more business-related posts (e.g. my Anatomy Of A Startup occasional series) … I am funding a series of startups with the ultimate aim of a Y-Combinator style of early stage entrepreneurship mentoring / funding program and what I am sharing in this series is real ‘special sauce’ stuff … like everything that I do, it’s usually simple but works!

Back to the first change: if I write less frequently, I’m hoping to challenge myself and my readers even more. To whit, my last post (inspired by Canadian Couch Potato’s brilliant post on the same subject) inspired a one week long comment-debate … one of the best that I have seen on this blog.

The main thrust was the debate around income v capital growth.

Jeff stated the ‘for’ argument best when he said:

The reasons why people desire rental income from real estate are the same reasons why people desire dividends from stocks…you get a cash flow without having to sell the asset at an inopportune time.

But, there’s a key difference between so-called ‘Income Real-Estate’ and its stock market equivalent – Dividend Stocks: Income RE produces REAL cashflow, Dividend Stocks produce FAKE cashflow!

To illustrate, let’s take a look, first, at income-producing real-estate:

Tenants pay rent; you pay costs; what’s left (if any) is real, spendable, excess income/cashflow that generally increases with inflation. Bad RE doesn’t produce an income. Period.

Now, let’s take a look at so-called Dividend Stocks (i.e. Company stocks that you buy specifically because they produce a nice, steady dividend stream):

Dividend-paying company sells stuff; they pay their suppliers and other costs; Good company produces profits / Bad company produces losses.

In either case, the Board meets and says “we gotta pay some dividends”.

The CFO says “But, we got bills to pay!”; CTO says “I got R&D to do!”; COO says “I got warehouses to build!”; CEO just wants to keep his job (he is hired/fired by the Board, remember) and says nothing …

The Board says: “Too bad. If we don’t look after our shareholders they’ll crucify us … even worse, they’ll vote us off our nice cushy board positions and we’ll even have to buy our own lunches!”

“Let the CEO deal with poor cashflow and working capital, insufficient warehouses space, outmoded products and technology, lack of marketing, and so on … heck, we’ll even borrow money from our provisioning funds or the open market, if we have to. No matter what, those Dividends must be paid … after all, we are a Dividend Stock!”

So, they say “no” to the CFO, COO, CTO, CMO … and, every other shmo’

Do you want your board fussing over distributing cash that it may or may not be able to spare? Or, would you rather that your Board focussed on building a GREAT company, with GREAT long-term growth and profitability prospects?

In order to answer that question, there’s one more feature of dividend stocks that we still need to examine; Kevin @ Invest It Wisely says:

The pro-dividend guys do have a compelling case that dividends grow more smoothly than the ups/downs of the markets.

To which I say, “so what?”

As we have already seen, the apparent  ‘smoothness’ of the dividend stream can be illusory.

And, what are you going to do with any dividends that you have received pre-retirement?

I presume that you are going to reinvest them so that you, too, can get to $7 Million in 7 Years (or, at least to your own relatively large Number by your own relatively soon Date).

In other words, you’ll just take that relatively nice, smooth dividend stream and throw it right back into the choppy market [AJC: Next, you’ll be telling me that you’re Dollar Cost Averaging … somebody, grab me a Tylenol, please!].

If you’re going to be fully invested in the stock market, for a number of years, then why don’t you at least buy some stocks in great companies that are going to grow, grow, grow … profits?!

If they happen to pay dividends, well great [AJC: you’re going to give it straight back to them, anyway, aren’t you?], and if they don’t, well who cares?

I mean, would you rather own “this dividend stock [that] has delivered an annualized total return of 3.10% to its loyal shareholders”? Or, would you rather own this never-ever-paid-a-dividend stock that has delivered an annualized total return of 20+% to its loyal shareholders for over 40 years?!

However, there is one special case (i.e what if you are already retired?) that I want to examine next time …

Another case AGAINST dividends …

The graph shows the promise of dividend-investing, but Canadian Couch Potato states the reality – the case AGAINST dividends – far more eloquently than me:

Why do shareholders believe so strongly that a $1 dividend is preferable to a $1 capital gain? Meir Statman looked at this question in a 1984 article called “Explaining Investor Preference for Cash Dividends,” coauthored by Hersh Sheffrin. He also reviews the idea in his new book, What Investors Really Want, pointing out that receiving $1,000 in dividends is no different from selling $1,000 worth of stock to create a “homemade dividend.”

Even when this idea is explained to people, most refuse to accept it. Statman suggests that it comes down to a cognitive bias called mental accounting. Investors categorize $1,000 in dividends as income that they will happily spend, but the idea of selling $1,000 worth of stock is “dipping into capital,” which causes them great anxiety. This idea is deeply ingrained in many investors, but it is an illusion, because a company that pays a dividend to shareholders is depleting its own capital.

If you want to understand the arguments – both for and against – investing in so-called ‘dividend stocks’ for the sake of the dividends, you would do well to read Canadian Couch Potato’s whole blog post AND the comments … all for/against arguments are well thought out.

Here is my argument against dividends in a nutshell:

Since you can create a dividend stream yourself (“ignoring taxes and transactions costs, a stock that pays no dividend but increases in price by 6% provides precisely the same return as one whose share price rises 4% and pays a 2% dividend”), it boils down to what could the company do v what can you do with the ‘spare cash’ that the company plans to issue (or not issue) as a dividend:

1. If the company keeps the dividend:

– They could buy more inventory: if their business is a volume business, more inventory = more profits. Consumer products companies such as Kraft and Unilever are great examples.

– They could do more R&D: investing in R&D is necessary gambling on the future; often it will be money wasted (in which case it’s better off in your pocket as a dividend), but sometimes it will provide a huge payback, such as when a pharmaceutical company develops a breakthrough medication, or a venture capital firm finds the next FaceBook.

– They could invest in marketing: more marketing = more sales; pretty simply, huh? Consumer products and technology companies are classic examples; the more often they put their products in front of the consumer, the more sales they seem to get.

– They could invest in more infrastructure: more factories, more locations = more revenue and more profits. Manufacturing companies, high tech businesses, and retailers are all tied to physical infrastructure.

– They could invest the cash – Many companies (think Microsoft, Apple, the tobacco companies, and the brewers) are sitting on a ton of cash. Heck, Berkshire Hathaway is sitting on so much of it, even Warren toys from time to time with giving it back to the shareholders (i.e. by issuing a dividend); after all, if they can only get 3% while it’s sitting in the bank and you can get …? Inevitably, though, they use this cash to make a spectacular purchase that transforms the company: think Google’s $6.5 billion offer for Groupon, or Berkshire Hathaway’s $44 billion purchase of BNSF Railway.

2. If you take the dividend:

– You could buy more stock in the same company: this is the basis of the automatic ‘dividend reinvestment policy’ that most companies now offer. So, let me see … you invest in company ABC because it issues a dividend, and you use it to, what? Oh, buy more stock in company ABC?!

– You could buy more stock in another company: why invest in another company? Oh, because it provides a better return. So, why not pull ALL of your money from the worse-performing dividend paying stock, and put it all in this company?

– You could buy more stock in a bunch of companies: diversification is often seen as a good thing [AJC: by many reading “how I became rich” blogs; rarely by those writing them]. The more you diversify, the more you tend towards average market returns. Why would you want to take your cash out of a company that produces spectacular returns [AJC: that’s why you invested in the ‘dividend stock’ in the first place, isn’t it?!] in order to put your money into something that produces average returns?

– You could keep your cash in the bank: strangely enough, this one makes sense; if the company can’t do anything better with their ‘spare cash’ than give it to you, wouldn’t you rather have it sitting in your bank account rather than theirs, so that you can at least have the flexibility to make the decision what to do next, eg leave it in the bank, buy some index funds, pay down debt, or even buy back into the company stock when they get out of the ‘sit on a ton of cash with no vision for the future’ doldrums.

… but, if any of these things are better than leaving the money in the company, wouldn’t you be better off taking all of your money out of the company all in one go (i.e. sell the stock) rather than in dribs and drabs (i.e. taking small dividends)?

Let me finish off with a story:

Warren Buffett got started by purchasing a textile company and immediately canceling it’s dividends!


So that he would have more money to invest in growing the company.

Potential investors who wanted dividends invested elsewhere … those who didn’t invested in Berkshire Hathaway and became multi-millionaires!

Berkshire Hathaway still operates on the same principle: why pull money out of BH when Warren can grow your money faster?!