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Investing is simpl(icity)

Simplicity sounds like a simple concept, but it's hard to achieve. The rewards are great.

Investing is simpl(icity)

For decades now, as technology companies have taken over the world and started eating up practically every other industry, the world's greatest investors have ignored this. For all practical purposes, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger missed the technology bus. They invested in Apple only recently, after it has transformed into a consumer-durables company. Why did they do this, and is there anything that us mere mortals can learn from this?

In the years before that, Buffett and Munger often said that they did not invest in the stocks of companies whose businesses they did not understand. A simplistic response would be that they missed out on a lot of great investments because of that. Despite always having had billions of dollars of investible surplus, they never made anything from companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon, which delivered more than 20× for investors over these years.

And yet they appear to have no regrets over the opportunity they have let slip. The reason for that is that they were still the most successful investors in the world at that scale. They were successful because they invested in businesses they understand. In hindsight, it's easy to say that they missed out on Amazon and Google. However, they also missed out on Pets.com, Webvan, Myspace and other expensive failures. Since they did not understand the business, they were just as likely to invest in these duds as they were to invest in Amazon and Google. After all, the great media mogul Rupert Murdoch did buy Myspace for $580 million and then sell it four years later for $35 million. To avoid this 94 per cent loss, all Murdoch had to do was to learn from Buffett and Munger and not touch investments that he did not understand.

Which example do you think we should follow? Buffett + Munger's, or Murdoch's?

No matter what product or service we're buying, nothing impresses us more than features, jargon, and complexity. Perhaps our modern technological world has mentally trained us to accept that most of the new wonders of the world are too complex to be understood by most people, and therefore, anything that is complex must be good. Unfortunately, in personal finance, this idea is fatally wrong. In the case of personal-finance products, simplicity is not just something useful or helpful, it's absolutely necessary. The reason is simple: if an investor does not fully understand a financial product or service, then he or she has no way of telling whether it is even minimally suitable, regardless of how good its seller may claim it is.

And how can you ensure that you understand everything? The easiest way of doing so is to keep things simple. Unfortunately, the message that we hear is the opposite. When I look at the market for savings and investment products today and see the resulting investment portfolios that people are collecting, it's clear that there's a strong need for a self-aware and aggressive minimalism. The impact of marketing messages is to promote the idea that your investment needs are best met by portioning out little bits of your savings into a large number of investments. If you would like to be part of the minority of sensible investors, then you should stick to a minimalist approach. Simplicity is needed not just in the types of investments that you use, but in your investment portfolio as a whole. If someone has - and this is very common - an investment portfolio that has 20 different investments of varying amounts and periodicities, in such a situation, even if those investments are simple, the whole situation is complex and hard to understand.

I would say that 99 savers out of 100 need to do nothing but have a basic menu of a certain amount of emergency money, a hefty term insurance policy, and no more than three to four mutual funds, one for which can be a tax-saver. Such a combination is simple, to the point that anyone can understand everything about it and track it to the extent required. Simplicity serves your purpose best, because you always know what is happening and why.

When it works, you can understand why and do more of that, and when does not, then you can figure out why it did not.