Jonathan here: One of the two best best ideas we’ve ever had is having an enduring investment process. The other is focusing more energy and resources on process than on outcome. In What’s Important Part II, we explore three ordinary but frequently underestimated components of an enduring investment process.
Our part of the world gets, on average, 43 inches of rainfall each year. That’s too much to worry about the price of rain barrels going up, but not enough that your average gardener can really trust Mother Nature for all watering needs. It seems the popular and cost-effective solution of choice is Drip Irrigation. My introduction to it was nine years ago, in Sacramento, California. My son-in-law hooked up miniature hoses and nozzles, which sputtered, stuttered, and sprayed a fine water mist for three whole minutes twice a day, onto ferns, banana trees, morning glory, oleander, hibiscus, and bird of paradise. His “backyard” was literally a beautiful pool and a cement pool deck with huge terra cotta pots containing mammoth plants. I was astonished that the plants flourished in these conditions. Seriously convinced, once home I visited Lowes in search of all things drip irrigation. I threaded rubber hose no thicker than a pencil through a maze of rhododendron, yew, azaleas, hydrangeas, moon vines, morning glories, black eyed Susan, cardinal vines and impatiens. I attached, at various intervals, micro sprinklers and nozzles, balanced the water output with Y-splitters, and screwed into the nerve center of this hydroponic contraption, one battery operated Gilmour automatic water timer.
The principles governing agriculture and investing are much the same. Plant the best seeds at the right time in good soil, then water, fertilize, weed, thin out, protect against threats, harvest, enjoy, repeat as often as necessary. Too much or too little of any of these activities can create undue risk. But, hit the right balance and you stack the odds of reaping a harvest in your favor. In our last commentary, we outlined six “prism tweaks” we’ve put in motion. We discussed, in detail, the importance of Price, Moat, and Uncertainty; this quarter, we’ll cover Dividends, Diversification, and Safety.
Dividends. Sometimes it helps us to think about investing in terms of being a gardener who sells vegetables, whole vegetable plants, and potted flowers at the local farmers’ market. On any given Saturday, she can decide to sell her hand picked vegetables (which, in investing, is similar to collecting dividends), or she can sell a whole plant (selling a dividend paying stock), or she can also sell her potted flowers (selling a non-dividend paying stock). The problem the gardener faces with buying and selling too many potted flowers (buying non-dividend paying stocks) is that the only way to make a profit is if her buyers think the flowers are worth more than she paid for them. That’s all well and good if her time horizon is long enough or the market for plants is stable. But what if (like many investors today) her time horizon is shorter and the market for plant buyers isn’t especially stable? Or what if the price of soil skyrockets or news reports circulate that recreational gardening is a health risk? People won’t want to plant in their gardens and prices of these plants will drop. If our gardener is depending on selling her plants (vegetable or flowering) for her income, she would have to sell them at an inopportune time. As advisors, we aim to set up our clients’ gardens (portfolios) in such a way that their vegetables (dividends) provide for the majority of their income needs and they aren’t dependent on the price of their plants (stocks) on the day they need income. There’s much more to dividends than finding the highest yield (for example, determining a company’s ability to keep paying it, management’s commitment to upholding it, and what we can expect in terms of its growth) but that’s for another commentary.
Diversification. Suppose our gardener needs to choose between planting squash, cucumbers, or both. She figures each will produce approximately the same amount of income for her and will need the same amount of sunlight, water, and care. The only difference: squash are susceptible to squash bugs while cucumbers are vulnerable to cucumber beetles. With an equal chance of either insect showing up hungry and harming a crop; it makes sense to plant both squash and cucumbers while still trying to ward off both insects. This is the case not only for stock diversification (owning more than just a handful of stocks), but even more so for asset class diversification (owning more than just a couple asset classes such as US Stocks, Bonds, Foreign Stocks, Commodities or Real Estate.) While it does get more complex meshing multiple asset classes, the outcome is still the same. An investor can take a number of inherently risky assets and combine them in a portfolio that delivers the highest expected return for a given level of volatility (determined by what the investor can stomach both financially and emotionally.)