I think that diversification doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves on this board. I can understand that from the perspective that diversification is not “Saul’s Way”. While many are here to more closely emulate Saul, I think we’re all here to improve the performance of our portfolios. Here is why I think diversification can help instead of hinder…
The other day, I was listening to a recording where Tom Gardner interviewed David Gardner. I can’t provide a link – it comes from a subscription service. David’s main emphasis (or at least my main takeaway) was the importance of letting an investment grow over time. One doesn’t generally get multi-bagger performance by selling winners. Even lightening winners tends to negatively impact performance over the long-term. But that isn’t the point that I wanted to stress in this post, although it provides a foundation.
David stressed careful stock picking, but also recognition that he was probably going to be wrong about half the time, and probably closer to 60%. If you’re wrong 60% of the time, how do you make money? The answer lies in the asymmetry in straightforward stock investment (I’m not including arcane strategies like options or shorting here). You can never lose more than 100% of your investment in a stock, but a good selection can return well in excess of 100% of your investment, over time. In other words, a single multi-bagger can overcome the poor returns of several other choices.
I certainly understand the theoretical appeal of an argument like: “Why on earth would you invest in a stock that is your fiftieth-highest conviction?” My counter-argument would be: “Why should I have the temerity to assume that stock performance will correlate very strongly with my convictions?” Maybe, like Saul, if you have a proven track record that performance does correlate with conviction, you can make such a bold assertion. I, for one, cannot. Yet, I’ve been successful enough in the stock market to retire young. I think diversification has helped me immensely. I’ve been able to pick my fair share of multi-baggers despite the fact that they weren’t always my highest-conviction holdings. Over the years, I’ve bought a lot of stocks. I’ve made very few (but certainly some) sales that I’ve regretted. But a lot of my returns have come from a relatively small percentage of the companies I’ve bought and held.
I want to quickly share two examples. In 1997, I decided that I wanted to buy a basket of five biotechs, and size that basket to be equivalent to two normal purchases in my portfolio. I agonized over several dozen companies, and ultimate chose six because I couldn’t narrow it down to five. Almost twenty years later, only two still exist as independent entities. But the one that did best was basically my sixth choice that I couldn’t convince myself to discard. The basket – winners and losers – is a bit behind the S&P 500 today, but it has been ahead at times when biotechs are in favor. But again, my main point is that it was my sixth choice that salvaged the whole operation.
I bought NVDA very early in 2004. By late 2007, I felt like a genius. However, by 2012, I was feeling less certain about the holding. It still had a nice gain for me, but hadn’t done much more than offer me head-fakes in the prior five years. I was seriously thinking about retirement at that point, and also thinking seriously about my investments needing to generate income (I feel less strongly about that today than I did in '12). I almost sold NVDA, which means – practically by definition – that it wasn’t a high-conviction holding. Thankfully, they introduced a dividend in late 2012, and that stayed my hand. NVDA has been a very solid performer over the last four years, arguably ridiculously-good in 2016. I still hold all those shares from 2004.
So, what do these anecdotes prove, if anything? I think they prove that I’m personally not particularly good at having my highest-convictions match my best performers. But I think it also proves that I’m a good-enough stock-picker that my portfolio will include its share of big winners, if I give them the time to succeed.
It might be a good exercise – especially for the novices reading this board – to rank your stocks in order of conviction, and hide the list for two or three years. Then revisit it and see how you did. If your results please you, then you should probably run a concentrated portfolio. If they dismay you, you might want to consider alternatives, and I’d suggest diversification as one of those alternatives. I think the key thing is to figure out how YOU succeed, and mostly stick with that plan.
I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility that my correlation between conviction and subsequent performance MIGHT improve if I were following fewer companies. But I’m not sure I’m willing to BET my portfolio on that possibility at this late stage in the game. Maybe I should take my own advice and rank the five or six companies that I know best, and seal it in a “Open in 2020” envelope. That would be interesting… They’re all so different – special in their own way, like children.
OK… Back to studying up on my company that will report earnings tomorrow morning…
Thanks and best wishes,
TMFDatabaseBob (long: NVDA, and the two-of-six biotechs still standing)
See my holdings here: http://my.fool.com/profile/TMFDatabasebob/info.aspx
Peace on Earth