Things that have never happened before happen all the time – Scott Sagan
A book review this time – The Psychology Of Money by Morgan Housel. It is the only book I have read twice, just because I enjoyed it so much and there was so much wisdom in it. Must read for everyone. Let’s look at three stories from the book (out of many) that really appealed to me and I hope will be of interest to you as well.
Story 1 -
Ronald James Read was an American philanthropist, investor, janitor and a gas station attendant. He fixed cars at a gas station for 25 years and swept floors at JC Penny for 17 years. He died in 2014, aged 92 with a net worth of more than $8 million leaving $2 mn for his stepkids and $6 mn for charity. A fortune made with meagre savings put into blue chip stocks and being patient.
Richard Fuscone was a Haward educated MBA at Merrill Lynch and was so successful that he retired at 40 to become a philanthropist and was on the “40 under 40” list. In the 2008 crisis high personal debt and illiquid assets made him bankrupt.
Ronald Read was patient, Richard Fuscone was in a hurry. That is all it took to eclipse the massive education and experience gap between the two. Only in investing outcomes can a janitor beat the most qualified people. Financial success is not an outcome of hard science but a soft skill, where how you behave is more important that what you know. Luck plays a large part in the final outcome as well.
When things are going well, realise it is not as good as you think. You are not invincible and if you acknowledge that luck brought you success then you also have to believe that lucks’s cousin risk is around the corner and can turn your story around as quickly.
Failure is a lousy teacher too as it seduces smart people into thinking their decisions were terrible when sometimes they just reflect the unforgiving realities of risk. The trick when dealing with failure is arranging your financial life in a way that a bad investment here and a missed goal there won’t wipe you out and you can keep playing the game until the odds fall in your favor.
The correct lesson to learn from surprises is that the world is full of surprises – Daniel Kahneman
Story 2 -
Investment duo of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger was actually a trio 40 years ago – Rick Guerin was the third partner. In words of Warren what happened to Rick “Charlie and I always knew that we would become incredibly wealthy. We were not in a hurry to get wealthy, we knew it would happen. Rick was just as smart as us, but he was in a hurry.” What happened was that in the 1973-74 downturn Rick was levered with margin loans. And the stock market went down almost 70% in those two years so he got margin calls. He sold his Berkshire stock to Warren at under $40 a share. Rick was forced to sell as he was levered. Taleb puts it brilliantly. Having an edge and surviving are two different things – the first requires the second. You need to avoid ruin. At all costs.
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose – Bill Gates
Story 3 -
December 29th, 2008. Wall Street Journal front page. Russian professor Igor Panarin.
Around the end of June 2010 or early July the US will break into six pieces – with Alaska reverting to Russian control, California will revert back to form the nucleus of the “Californian Republic” and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texans will be a part of the “Texan Republic” a cluster of states that will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington DC and New York will be a part of the “Atlantic America” that may join the EU. Canada will grab a group of northern states.
This was at the height of the financial crisis and only in these times a story like this could appear at the front page of the most prestigious financial newspaper in the world. Pessimism just sounds smarter and more plausible than optimism. Tell someone that everything will be great and they will shrug you off or offer a skeptical eye. Tell someone they are in danger and you have their undivided attention. Assuming that something ugly will stay ugly is an easy forecast to make. And its persuasive since it does not require imagining the world changing. But problems correct and people adapt. Threats incentivise solutions in equal magnitude. That is a common plot of economic history that is too easily forgotten by pessimists who think in straight lines.
Progress happens too slowly to notice. Setbacks happen too quickly to ignore.
The psychology of money is actually our psychology, which is shaped by many things including our personalities, past experiences, relationships, outlook of the future and hence as unique as our fingerprints. Like our other important relationships, our relationship with money is never perfect and evolves with us and (hopefully) gets better with time.