A few months ago I was asked by the CFA Institute to give talks to CFA societies in London (October 27), Zurich (October 29) and Frankfurt (November 3). I enjoy giving occasional talks (but only a few a year, otherwise they become a chore). I also love Europe — history, old buildings and cultures, museums, sometimes a mild adventure. But this offer was much more interesting — I was asked to give a joint presentation with Guy Spier.
Guy Spier is a tremendous value investor who happens to be a good friend whose company I truly enjoy. He is the most cosmopolitan person I know. He was born in South Africa, spent his childhood in Iran and Israel, received his bachelor’s degree from Oxford and MBA from Harvard, lived in New York and in 2008 got sick of the New York hedge fund rat race and moved with his family to Zurich. His wife, Lory, is Mexican, so in addition to being fluent in languages of all the above-mentioned countries, he romances in Spanish.
Last year Guy published a book, The Education of a Value Investor: My Transformative Quest for Wealth, Wisdom, and Enlightenment. It is not a traditional investing book. In fact, I’ll say that differently: This is the most untraditional book on investing you’re likely to run into. It is a self-effacing memoir of Guy’s transformation from a Gordon Gekko wannabe who believes that his Ivy League education entitles him to Wall Street riches to a committed follower of Warren Buffett and his sidekick, Charlie Munger.
It must have taken a lot of guts and self-confidence (overcoming a lot of self-doubt) to write this book. To be honest, I am not sure I could have written it. It is one thing to strive for intellectual honesty; it is another to unearth and expose one’s own greed, arrogance and envy. Many of us are trying to hide such character traits in plain sight, never mind telling the world about them in a popular book.
After all, Guy is not writing about a fictional character; he is writing about himself. The humility he displays is what makes the book so effective — you can clearly follow the deliberate transformation of a cockroach (the Wall Street version of a caterpillar) into a butterfly.
This memoir is able to achieve something that many other investments books don’t (including my own): It reveals the real, practical, behavioral side of investing, not the way you read about it in behavioral finance textbooks but the raw emotions every investor experiences.
There are a lot of lessons we can learn from Guy. The first one — and, for me, the most important one — is that environment matters.
Dan Ariely, the well-known behavioral economist, was interviewed on Bloomberg Television and asked, What can one do to lose weight? He said, Start with the environment around you. If you come to work and there is a box of doughnuts on your desk, losing weight is going to be difficult. Also, look in your fridge: All the stuff that is probably not good for your diet is staring you in the face, whereas the fruits and vegetables that are essential to healthy eating are buried in the hard-to-access bottom drawers.
The same applies to investing: We may not notice it, but the environment around us impacts our ability to make good decisions. Guy writes, “We like to think that we change our environment, but the truth is that it changes us. So we have to be extraordinarily careful to choose the right environment — to work with, and even socialize with, the right people.”
I have found that checking the prices of stocks I own throughout the day shrinks my time horizon, impacts my mood and wastes my brain cells as I try to interpret data that have very little information. I am getting better; I am already down checking prices only once a day. My goal is to do it just once every few days.
Guy is ahead of me: He checks them once a week. Recently, I put in price alerts for stocks my firm owns or follows. If a stock price changes more than 10 percent or crosses a certain important (buy or sell) point, I’ll get an e-mail alert.
Guy finds that he isn’t effective when he gets to the office because of external distractions. In his Zurich office he has a quiet room that he calls the library. It doesn’t have phones or computers, and this is where he reads, thinks and naps. Here in Denver, I have a lawn chair (bought at Costco for $50) that I take outside to sit on, put on headphones, and listen to music and read. My friend Chris goes to Starbucks or the local library in the morning for four hours before he goes to his office, and that’s where he does his reading. The key is to figure out what works for you and try not to fight your external environment.
Another lesson I have learned is that misery loves company. I was talking to Guy about his book, and he told me that people who love the book appreciate the fact that he is so honest about the emotions that consume him when he is struggling in the stock market. As investors, we often put on a brave face, but if we aren’t emotionally honest, our opinion of ourselves, our self-worth, may fluctuate with the performance of our portfolio.
Personally, I can really relate to this. When I read Guy’s book the first time (I’ve read it twice), I was going through a tough time with my portfolio. I found this book extremely therapeutic. In fact, I recommended it to a friend of mine who was going through a similar rough patch.
Another lesson: Surround yourself with the right people. Friendships matter. I’ve been blatantly plagiarizing Guy on this for years. Guy created a conference called VALUEx Zurich, a gathering of like-minded people who get together and share investment ideas. I attended the very first one in 2010, and since then I have hosted a very similar event, VALUEx Vail, every year in June.
Guy has a latticework group of eight investors that meets every quarter and discusses the stock market, the investment process and personal issues. I’ve copied that, too. Four of us got together in Atlanta in October. We visited a few companies and debated stocks, industry trends, diets, women . . . okay, you get the point. That was our first latticework event, but I hope we’ll meet a few times a year.
Attending Guy’s conference in Zurich and organizing VALUEx Vail have resulted in enduring friendships. These conferences allowed me to create a large network of like-minded investors I talk to regularly. Every member of my latticework group I met at VALUEx Vail.
(A short side note: One of the most important things we can do as parents of teenage kids is to make sure they have good friends. That’s paramount. We as parents lose influence on our kids when they become teenagers. Their friends have a disproportionately larger impact on their choices than we do. We can influence the environment around our kids by helping them select friends.)
And then there are thank-you cards. Over the years Guy has written tens of thousands of them. He is indiscriminate about them — at one point he wrote to every employee at a boutique hotel he stayed in. All right, maybe he took it too far that time. But writing a thank-you card to value investor Mohnish Pabrai changed his life. He attended Pabrai Investment Funds’ annual meeting in Chicago. After the meeting he sent Pabrai a thank-you note. A few months later Pabrai came to New York and invited Guy to dinner. This was the start of the Spier-Pabrai bromance. Thank-you cards work because so few people write them. They leave a lasting impression on the receiver because they say, “I like you. You are important to me.”
The last point is, Be yourself. Having mentors is important. For many value investors, Buffett and Munger are our north stars. There are lots of things we can learn from them. But we also have to realize that we must be ourselves, because we are not them. I remember reading a long time ago that Buffett did not do spreadsheets. That impacted me for a few months — I stopped building models and creating spreadsheets. I thought, If Buffett doesn’t do it, I shouldn’t do it either. Wrong.
Buffett is a lot smarter than I am; he is able to analyze companies in his head. He is Buffett. I have found that spreadsheets work for me because they help me think. When Buffett and I look at a company philosophically, we are looking for the same things, but I need a computer to assist me, and he doesn’t.
Mohnish Pabrai owns just a handful of stocks. Guy, on the other hand, knows that he would not be able to be a rational decision maker if he had only a handful of stocks. There will be a significant overlap between Guy’s and Pabrai’s portfolios, but Guy’s will have two or three times as many stocks.
Dear reader, as you can tell from this, I am a very biased book reviewer. I am not even sure this qualifies as a book review. Despite my biases, I can safely say that The Education of a Value Investor is one of the best books I’ve read in 2015. (I promise you that it is not the only book I’ve read this year.) Before you commit your time and money to this book, watch Guy’s presentation on Talks at Google.