The Myth of Diversification

Important Announcement: Applications for my 7 Millionaires … In Training! ‘grand experiment’ CLOSE TONIGHT (June 2) at Midnight CST !!! This is your last chance to throw your hat in the ring …

I have been just itching to write this post … it falls straight into the category of ‘uncommon wisdom’ and will probably be jumped on by every Personal Finance author and self-appointed ‘finance guru’ out there.

All I can say is …

… bring it on, baby!

If you’ve read my posts on the only three ways to invest in stocks and the follow-up post that quoted some of Warren Buffet’s views on Index Funds vs direct stock investments, you’ll have some idea where this is heading.

But, if you’re just reading 7million7years for the first time, here it is in a nutshell:

1. Diversification is only suitable as a mid-term saving strategy – it automatically limits you to mediocre returns: The Market – Costs = All You Get … period!

Now, saving money this way, and compounding over time (a loooooonnnnnngggggg time) will put you way ahead of the typical American Spend-All-You-Earn-Then-Some Consumer ….

Just don’t confuse it with investing or wealth-building: it simply can’t, won’t, will never make you rich … nor will it make you wealthy …. nor will it even make you well-off ….

… because as long as you run, the dog of inflation is nipping at your heels!

However, it WILL stop you from being poor, broke and you may even be able to retire before 70, on the equivalent of $30k or $40k a year – not in today’s dollars, but in the inflation-ravaged dollars of the day that you retire!

But, if that’s all you need, then relax, that’s all that you need to do 🙂 But, if you need more then …

2. Concentration puts all of your eggs into one (well, a very few) baskets – it automatically gets you above average returns … if you get it right!

Investing implies taking some risk … it means choosing a vehicle (stocks, business, real-estate) … it means selecting one or a very few, well-chosen targets … it means putting your all into those well-selected targets and actively managing them for above-average market returns … until you get close to retirement.

Now, I could wax lyrical on this subject all day, every day … but, why trust me when you hardly know me and you can simply go to a source that everybody knows and can respect … Warren Buffet, who says:

I have 2 views on diversification. If you are a professional and have confidence, then I would advocate lots of concentration. For everyone else, if it’s not your game, participate in total diversification. The economy will do fine over time. Make sure you don’t buy at the wrong price or the wrong time. That’s what most people should do, buy a cheap index fund and slowly dollar cost average into it. If you try to be just a little bit smart, spending an hour a week investing, you’re liable to be really dumb.

If it’s your game, diversification doesn’t make sense. It’s crazy to put money into your 20th choice rather than your 1st choice. “Lebron James” analogy. If you have Lebron James on your team, don’t take him out of the game just to make room for someone else. If you have a harem of 40 women, you never really get to know any of them well.

Charlie and I operated mostly with 5 positions. If I were running 50, 100, 200 million, I would have 80% in 5 positions, with 25% for the largest. In 1964 I found a position I was willing to go heavier into, up to 40%. I told investors they could pull their money out. None did. The position was American Express after the Salad Oil Scandal. In 1951 I put the bulk of my net worth into GEICO. Later in 1998, LTCM was in trouble. With the spread between the on-the-run versus off-the-run 30 year Treasury bonds, I would have been willing to put 75% of my portfolio into it. There were various times I would have gone up to 75%, even in the past few years. If it’s your game and you really know your business, you can load up.

Over the past 50-60 years, Charlie and I have never permanently lost more than 2% of our personal worth on a position. We’ve suffered quotational loss, 50% movements. That’s why you should never borrow money. We don’t want to get into situations where anyone can pull the rug out from under our feet.

In stocks, it’s the only place where when things go on sale, people get unhappy. If I like a business, then it makes sense to buy more at 20 than at 30. If McDonalds reduces the price of hamburgers, I think it’s great. [W. E. B. 2/15/08 ]

So Warren Buffett seems to be suggesting that the average investor should be diversifying … not true. He is saying that unless you educate yourself, you should be ‘saving’ not ‘investing’ … but, here is what the difference between the two strategies means to you financially:

 i) Warren Buffet-style Portfolio Concentrationhas produced 21% returns compounded annually since warren Buffett took the reins of Berkshire-Hathaway 44 years ago. This is how he became the world’s richest man, and created many other multi-millionaires in his wake.

ii) Common Wisdom Portfolio Diversificationas measured by an index such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) averages out to just 5.3% compounded annually, even though the DJIA appeared to “surge” from 66 to 11,497 during the 20th century.

When you subtract 4% average inflation from each of these sets of returns, which do you think has ANY CHANCE of making you rich? 

But, it’s true that it is far better to be earning $30k – $40k (albeit in ‘future dollars’) in retirement than being flat-broke … so you need to build a safety net before you take on the additional risk that concentration implies.

Here’s how:

1. Create two buckets of money: your long-term savings, and your risk-capital.

You should first create your long-term savings bucket, as your fall-back … this means, max’ing your 401k; being consumer-debt-free; buying your own home and building up sufficient equity to satisfy the 20% Rule; and holding some money in reserve (this could be a 3 – 6 month emergency fund, or extra equity in your home that you are prepared to release in an emergency).

2. Maintain your long-term savings with the first 10% of your current gross salary, but using excess savings (i.e. any additional money no longer required to pay off debt now that you are debt-free); 50% of future pay-rises or other ‘found money’;  50% of any second income (e.g. from a part-time business) all to fund your risk-capital account.

3. Educate yourself on the investments that you will specialize in … then do your homework on the specific investments that you want to make and seek professional advice before stepping (not jumping) in.

4. If you fail … fall back to Step 2. then try and learn from your mistakes … but do try again/smarter.

Which path will you take?