Inside the Brain of an Investing Genius
Those readers who have frequented my Investing Caffeine site are familiar with the numerous profiles on professional investors of both current and prior periods (See Profiles). Many of the individuals described have a tremendous track record of success, while others have a tremendous ability of making outrageous forecasts. I have covered both. Regardless, much can be learned from the successes and failures by mirroring the behavior of the greats – like modeling your golf swing after Tiger Woods (O.K., since Tiger is out of favor right now, let’s say Phil Mickelson). My investment swing borrows techniques and tips from many great investors, but Peter Lynch (ex-Fidelity fund manager), probably more than any icon, has had the most influence on my investing philosophy and career as any investor. His breadth of knowledge and versatility across styles has allowed him to compile a record that few, if any, could match – outside perhaps the great Warren Buffett.
Consider that Lynch’s Magellan fund averaged +29% per year from 1977 – 1990 (almost doubling the return of the S&P 500 index for that period). In 1977, the obscure Magellan Fund started with about $20 million, and by his retirement the fund grew to approximately $14 billion (700x’s larger). Cynics believed that Magellan was too big to adequately perform at $1, $2, $3, $5 and then $10 billion, but Lynch ultimately silenced the critics. Despite the fund’s gargantuan size, over the final five years of Lynch’s tenure, Magellan outperformed 99.5% of all other funds, according to Barron’s. How did Magellan investors fare in the period under Lynch’s watch? A $10,000 investment initiated when he took the helm would have grown to roughly $280,000 (+2,700%) by the day he retired. Not too shabby.
Lynch graduated from Boston College in 1965 and earned a Master of Business Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. Like the previously mentioned Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch shared his knowledge with the investing masses through his writings, including his two seminal books One Up on Wall Street and Beating the Street. Subsequently, Lynch authored Learn to Earn, a book targeted at younger, novice investors. Regardless, the ideas and lessons from his writings, including contributing author to Worth magazine, are still transferrable to investors across a broad spectrum of skill levels, even today.
The Lessons of Lynch
Although Lynch has left me with enough financially rich content to write a full-blown textbook, I will limit the meat of this article to lessons and quotations coming directly from the horse’s mouth. Here is a selective list of gems Lynch has shared with investors over the years:
Buy within Your Comfort Zone: Lynch simply urges investors to “Buy what you know.” In similar fashion to Warren Buffett, who stuck to investing in stocks within his “circle of competence,” Lynch focused on investments he understood or on industries he felt he had an edge over others. Perhaps if investors would have heeded this advice, the leveraged, toxic derivative debacle occurring over previous years could have been avoided.
Do Your Homework: Building the conviction to ride through equity market volatility requires rigorous homework. Lynch adds, “A company does not tell you to buy it, there is always something to worry about. There are always respected investors that say you are wrong. You have to know the story better than they do, and have faith in what you know.”
Price Follows Earnings: Investing is often unnecessarily made complicated. Lynch fundamentally believes stock prices will follow the long-term trajectory of earnings growth. He makes the point that “People may bet on hourly wiggles of the market, but it’s the earnings that waggle the wiggle long term.” In a publicly attended group meeting, Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Inc. (DELL), asked Peter Lynch about the direction of Dell’s future stock price. Lynch’s answer: “If your earnings are higher in 5 years, your stock will be higher.” Maybe Dell’s price decline over the last five years can be attributed to its earnings decline over the same period? It’s no surprise that Hewlett-Packard’s dramatic stock price outperformance (relative to DELL) has something to do with the more than doubling of HP’s earnings over the same time frame.
Valuation & Price Declines: “People Concentrate too much on the P (Price), but the E (Earnings) really makes the difference.” In a nutshell, Lynch believes valuation metrics play an important role, but long-term earnings growth will have a larger impact on future stock price appreciation.
Two Key Stock Questions: 1) “Is the stock still attractively priced relative to earnings?” and 2) “What is happening in the company to make the earnings go up?” Improving fundamentals at an attractive price are key components to Lynch’s investing strategy.
Lynch on Buffett: Lynch was given an opportunity to write the foreword in Buffett’s biography, The Warren Buffett Way. Lynch did not believe in “pulling out flowers and watering the weeds,” or in other words, selling winners and buying losers. In highlighting this weed-flower concept, Lynch said this about Buffett: “He purchased over $1 billion of Coca-Cola in 1988 and 1989 after the stock had risen over fivefold the prior six years and over five-hundredfold the previous sixty years. He made four times his money in three years and plans to make a lot more the next five, ten, and twenty years with Coke.” Hammering home the idea that a few good stocks a decade can make an investment career, Lynch had this to say about Buffett: “Warren states that twelve investments decisions in his forty year career have made all the difference.”
You Don’t Need Perfect Batting Average: In order to significantly outperform the market, investors need not generate near perfect results. According to Lynch, “If you’re terrific in this business, you’re right six times out of 10 – I’ve had stocks go from $11 to 7 cents (American Intl Airways).” Here is one recipe Lynch shares with others on how to beat the market: “All you have to do really is find the best hundred stocks in the S&P 500 and find another few hundred outside the S&P 500 to beat the market.”
The Critical Element of Patience: With the explosion of information, expansion of the internet age, and the reduction of trading costs has come the itchy trading finger. This hasty investment principle runs contrary to Lynch’s core beliefs. Here’s what he had to say regarding the importance of a steady investment hand:
- “In my investing career, the best gains usually have come in the third or fourth year, not in the third or fourth week or the third or fourth month.”
- “Whatever method you use to pick stocks or stock mutual funds, your ultimate success or failure will depend on your ability to ignore the worries of the world long enough to allow your investments to succeed.”
- “Often, there is no correlation between the success of a company’s operations and the success of its stock over a few months or even a few years. In the long term, there is a 100% correlation between the success of a company and the success of its stock. It pays to be patient, and to own successful companies.”
- “The key to making money in stocks is not to get scared out of them.”
Bear Market Beliefs: “I’m always more depressed by an overpriced market in which many stocks are hitting new highs every day than by a beaten-down market in a recession,” says Lynch. The media responds in exactly the opposite manner – bear markets lead to an inundation of headlines driven by panic-based fear. Lynch shares a similar sentiment to Warren Buffett when it comes to the media holding a glass half full view in bear markets.
Market Worries: Is worrying about market concerns worth the stress? Not according to Lynch. His belief: “I’ve always said if you spend 13 minutes a year on economics, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.” Just this last March, Lynch used history to drive home his views: “We’ve had 11 recessions since World War II and we’ve had a perfect score — 11 recoveries. There are a lot of natural cushions in the economy now that weren’t there in the 1930s. They keep things from getting out of control. We have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation [which insures bank deposits]. We have social security. We have pensions. We have two-person, working families. We have unemployment payments. And we have a Federal Reserve with a brain.”
Thoughts on Cyclicals: Lynch divided his portfolio into several buckets, and cyclical stocks occupied one of the buckets. “Cyclicals are like blackjack: stay in the game too long and it’s bound to take all your profit,” Lynch emphasized.
Selling Discipline: The rationale behind Lynch’s selling discipline is straightforward – here are some of his thoughts on the subject:
- “When the fundamentals change, sell your mistakes.”
- “Write down why you own a stock and sell it if the reason isn’t true anymore.”
- “Sell a stock because the company’s fundamentals deteriorate, not because the sky is falling.”
Distilling the genius of an investing legend like Peter Lynch down to a single article is not only a grueling challenge, but it also cannot bring complete justice to the vast accomplishments of this incredible investment legend. Nonetheless, his record should be meticulously studied in hopes of adding jewels of investment knowledge to the repertoires of all investors. If delving into the head of this investing mastermind can provide access to even a fraction of his vast knowledge pool, then we can all benefit by adding a slice of this greatness to our investment portfolios.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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