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20 punches: my personal investments are not a forecast

Warren Buffett has described his ‘Rule of 20 Punches’ when speaking to graduation classes:

"I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you'd punched through the card, you couldn't make any more investments at all. Under those rules, you'd really think carefully about what you did, and you'd be forced to load up on what you'd really thought about. So you'd do so much better."

Of the hundreds of Buffett investment lessons, this one goes under the radar but is among the most powerful. Many portfolios include a foundation of long-term mainstays but there's a rabble of other acquisitions due to rumours, quick-fire opportunities or hot tips. The tiddlers are often more trouble than they are worth, they need to be watched regularly and then punted when they fall or pay off. Buffett would have no place for them on his punch card.

Trading, investing or something to do?

Some people enjoy the regular activity but it’s more akin to trading than long-term investing.

A retired friend told me recently that he spends a couple of hours a day on his SMSF portfolio, worth about $2 million and it includes over 200 holdings, all listed. It’s become his hobby. I'm far more of a 'buy and hold', but my own portfolio includes too many small positions which have a negligible impact on the total performance. But there are other investments which I have held for decades which follow the discipline of Buffett’s 20 punches in a lifetime.

When I present at conferences or webcasts, I am often asked for a stockmarket forecast. It is a disappointment when I say I have no better insight into what the market might do next month or next year than a taxi driver who has overheard a passenger. 

It's always 'time for caution'

I dislike articles which give a list of reasons the market will fall, another list of reasons it will rise, and then conclude with “It’s a time for caution.” Or how about "The market will be volatile." Really? Well, that covers everything. If the market falls, I told you to be cautious. If the market rises, I told you not to sell. Let me know when it’s a time for all-out aggression.

There are reasons markets are expensive – central bank stimulus, low interest rates, strong earnings – or markets are cheap – low growth, rising rates, slump in earnings. (There, I just gave you two short lists – happy now?). But few people want to sell when markets are expensive in case they miss the next leg up, nor buy when markets are cheap because they are not sure where the bottom is.

But here's the thing. Regardless of whether I think markets will rise or fall in the short to medium term, I have a large SMSF and it must be invested in something other than term deposits at 1%. 

Most people are tempted into tactical asset allocation

Chris Cuffe wrote in an article in 2014 called “Why can’t we resist tactical asset allocation?”:

Like many people who manage their own portfolios, I actively engage in tactical asset allocation (TAA), despite evidence that it’s a waste of effort.”

I'm the same, and the need to make new investments is constant. Most portfolios throw off cash flow that must be reinvested, unless it is money to live on or left to rollover in term deposits. Even a defensive bond portfolio delivers regular coupons and maturities, and equities pay dividends and sometimes the proceeds of share buybacks. The cash flow requires a conscious decision to buy something, perhaps to reinvest in the same asset class.

Some institutions operate the discipline of a strategic asset allocation but they utilise ranges to make decisions at the margin based on forecasts or expectations.

I have some stocks and funds I never expect to sell. However, while I recommend anyone with a long-term investment horizon should stay substantially invested in equities, I am starting to reduce some equity exposures as I personally believe the market will experience a decent fall sometime in 2022. There, the forecast you make when you're not making a forecast ... and here are my brief explanations:

1. Central banks have delivered too much stimulus

OECD governments have spent about US$20 trillion on COVID support measures. With such massive business and personal stimulus, company earnings have recovered strongly and asset values have surged. In Australia alone, the value of residential property has increased by $2 trillion in a year to almost $10 trillion. The Reserve Bank lent nearly $200 billion fixed for three years at 0.1% for Australian banks to fuel a housing boom.

For many sectors of the economy, the cost of borrowing was close to zero, as central banks bought trillions of dollars of bonds and other securities. Awash with liquidity, markets entered a massive ‘risk on’ where asset values were pushed up in the buying spree.

Common valuation measures in the US such as the Shiller P/E, the Crestmont P/E and the Buffett Indicator set new records in 2021, and as the chart below shows, flows to equities were unprecedented. In the nine months to September 2021, the value of US stocks rose US$8 trillion from US$41 trillion to US$49 trillion, making a lot of wealthy people even wealthier.

But 2022 will be the year that central banks and government take away the punch bowl.

2. Interest rates will start to rise

It's only a few weeks ago when the RBA Governor, Philip Lowe, was still saying:

"Our judgement is that this condition for a lift in the cash rate will not be met before 2024."

But even he changed his tune this week, removing the reference to a date, opening the door to an earlier move. It's a significant development as there has not been a cash rate rise for a decade.

Now that Jerome Powell, the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, is re-elected for another term, he has already indicated he will spoil the stimulus party. Initially, bond purchases will be tapered, and then the market will experience the first increases in the Fed funds rate to control inflation and take the steam out of asset price inflation.

3. Inflation expectations are rising

Despite US inflation around 6%, the market’s main interest rate, the 10-year Treasury, remains about 1.5%-1.7%. Few bond investors have experienced such a large negative real rate, when it had been around plus 2% since the GFC. As inflation takes hold and the economy recovers, the 10-year may rise above 2%, which will fundamentally change the discount rate on earnings of many of the darlings which drove market values in 2020 and 2021.

For example, CBA Economics wrote this week:

"Inflation pressures look to be broad-based. We see inflation in the top half of the RBA's target band around the middle of next year, prompting the RBA to start their hiking cycle in November 2022 ... A key upside risk to inflation in 2022 is that global factors such as supply chain disruptions affect tradable goods prices by more than expected. Another is that the massive pile of excess savings accumulated by households will buoy spending and demand, providing a strong tailwind to prices growth, including for services."

4. New viruses, perhaps 'more contagious and lethal'

The scientific community delivered extraordinary protection from COVID in record time, but almost two years later, the world is still experiencing travel restrictions and lockdowns. Professor Dame Sarah Roberts, the co-creator of the AstraZeneca vaccine, warned this week that future pandemics could be more contagious and lethal than COVID:

“We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness. The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost ...

This pandemic is not done with us.” 

Forecasts are set up for failure

There are always reasons to sell, and there is plenty of evidence against trying to pick tops and bottoms. Some analysts have predicted six of the last two collapses, and guessing a market change is not much practical use without nominating the timing, the amount and the market’s reaction. Much of what is said about rate rises is already built into forward pricing, so even if a forecast is correct, there is no market gain. The more assumptions in a forecast, the more likely it will be wrong.

Look at the litany of recent failures. Nobody expected negative interest rates, we had never heard of Modern Monetary Theory until a few years ago, the experts were seeing a fall in house prices of up to 30% in 2020/21 and governments expected budget surpluses. Contrary to my personal view, Morningstar analysts expect global equities to deliver 9% per annum for the next five years.

So how should I invest? At some point, monetary and fiscal policy must return to a semblance of normal, but regardless of my expectations, I must remain in the market to a reasonable extent.

About 20 punches on my card

Taking a lead from Buffett, here are around 20 investments that I expect to hold for many years. It’s not that I will ignore the outlook for these businesses or funds, but I am happy to live with the swings. I also have large embedded capital gains which I prefer not to realise for tax reasons.

However, I accept that history is full of great companies – Kodak, Blockbuster, Nokia – which looked like long-term holds until bad decisions or better competitors wiped them out. Who would have thought Nokia with its one billion customers could fail so quickly? 

I am not a stock analyst, and I am not recommending these investments. I’m showing that regardless of what I think about the equity market, there are some pillars in my portfolio. Some investments are in funds where I accept the superior ability of the manager to access and assess opportunities in particular sectors. 

  • CBA (ASX:CBA) – rock-solid balance sheet of home loans, leading banking platform, strong capital position, big deposit base.
  • Wesfarmers (ASX:WES) – diverse business operating Bunnings, Officeworks, Kmart, various industrial and resources interests.
  • Transurban (ASX:TCL) – dominant toll road operator with significant pricing power, I enjoy that 'ding' when I am charged $8.48 to use the Eastern Distributor which once cost only $3.50.
  • Macquarie Group (ASX:MQG) – global investment bank specialising in infrastructure, now a leading position in mortgage lending, clean energy and funds management.
  • Argo Infrastructure (ASX:ALI) – one of the few ways to access listed global infrastructure assets at a discount to Net Tangible Asset (current NTA $2.40 versus share price of $2.28).
  • Mineral Resources (ASX:MIN) – a more recent addition with an entry price enabled by the selloff reaction to the falling iron ore price while overlooking lithium potential.
  • Charter Hall Long WALE (ASX:CLW) – 468 properties worth $5.6 billion leased to governments and corporates with weighted average lease expiry (WALE) of 13.2 years on 'triple net lease' terms.
  • Djerriwarrh Investments (ASX:DJW) – old-style LIC offering diverse exposure to Australian equities with low fees and opportunities to pick up at discount to NTA.
  • My three A’s of Apple, Amazon and Alphabet (Google) are some of the greatest companies we have ever seen, and I’ve made the mistake of not picking up Microsoft along the way (except in funds).
  • Generation Investment Management – a fund introduced to Australia by me in 2007 while working at Colonial First State, fronted by Al Gore but with a bunch of smart fund managers for global equity exposure.

There are also sector investments in ETFs, LICs or unlisted funds including hybrids, corporate bonds, debt funds and equity specialists such as Loftus Peak, Munro Partners, 1851 Capital, Partners Group, Pengana Private Equity, Magellan Core Series (via Chi-X), Hearts & Minds and Ausbil.

That's about 20 punches in total, give or take. Some of my super is with UniSuper because CIO John Pearce is one of the best. So while I will play with asset allocations and I don’t know what the future will bring, I will leave these investments for the long term. As Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize Winner, wrote in his excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

We cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight today was predictable yesterday. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.

I will resist the urge to say it’s time for caution and next year will be volatile, but rather, think about your portfolio as if you only had 20 punches for the long term.

 

Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Firstlinks. This article is general information and does not consider the circumstances of any investor.

 

21 Comments
Harold Mattner
December 13, 2021

Thanks Graham for all your articles…thoroughly enjoyable and useful. I lost money for the first twenty years of investing, and reached a stage where I had to change, or give it up. I found investing was an extension of who I was as a person, so to change oneself before I could change my investing style was quite an insight. It required a lot of good advice from a relative few number of people. I have had to put a lot of time to put in the right structures like SMSF and Discretionary Trust. Seeking to simplify everything is an important part of this and gradually learning to outsource things over time to reduce my time input, which over time I want to reduce. Most importantly, investing in the future has been very important for me, and in so doing dividends aren’t important to me…but once the future becomes the present, dividends are bound to result.

CC
December 12, 2021

Djerriwarrh has been a terrible underperformer for the past 10 years
If you want a reliable low fee old style LIC , AFI is much better, also MIR for mid cap and small cap exposure.

C
December 14, 2021

ARG has also been disappointing. I have done well with AFI, MLT (now SOL) and AUI.

Richard Thomas
January 16, 2022

Agreed. It has been a terrible performer for at least 10 years. Capital value over that time falling badly.
I new investor of say 2 years would hold capital but for a long term holder of 10-15 years, which they used to promote, would have lost out badly. RT

Ramon Vasquez
December 12, 2021

Thank you Graham for sharing .

For my part , l have somewhat of a copy of your portfolio BUT trade about half the value of each stock

as time rolls by .

Ok , so it costs a bit extra in additional taxes but works out better than merely using a BnH approach .

Good luck everyone , Ramon .

AlanB
December 12, 2021

Graham's view that "I personally believe the market will experience a decent fall sometime in 2022" is not shared by the majority of CEOs. The Financial Review (11-12 Dec 2021) survey of the top 60 CEOs finds the majority to be very bullish on 2022.
CEOs from the banking, real estate and funds managements sectors are the most optimistic about a rebound in the economy, while the somewhat more cautious CEOs tended to be those with global operations and still unsure about supply chain constraints.
Their views, over 3 pages, makes reassuring reading and should inspire us to invest with confidence in Australian equities.
My own top 20 happy picks includes BHP, DDR, GMG, MQG, JHG, SHL, TCL, VGS and WES.

Peter
December 10, 2021

A great read. What I would find fascinating would be to look at a table showing from inception to now some figures showing say annual return (before tax), annual income (from investments), annual value of investment portfolio say. Why? Simply to see if the income and returns you have achieved are as stunning perhaps as at first glance your collection of investments seems to imply. I have enjoyed investing but in practice have found it pretty hard to do as well or better than I would have liked. On review of past failures the impact of less than honest (sometimes even competent!) CEOs and or Directors took a high toll not excusing my own poor decisions and a few big market downturns.

Kevin
December 11, 2021

You don't need a table,makes it more complicated,keep it simple.From the 4 companies mentioned I own 3 of them,and have done for a while.The last big purchase was MQG,when I bought them MBL.Around 2005 or 6. 1000 of them cost around $55 or $60K,borrowed money,work to pay the loan back.Use the DRP and your shareholding will double by the end of this year,or next year.I have bought into SPPs whenever they have had them so to work it out you need to go to the company web site and they will give you the price of DRP shares going back to 2000 I think .

Supposing you double your shareholding by 31/12/22 then you'll have 2000 shares X whatever the price is on that date .Congratulations,you did what 99.6% of the population would never dream of doing.Spend a reasonable sum of money and then do nothing at all for 16 or 17 years.Macbank has been a wonderful white knuckle ride for those years,not for the faint hearted.Investing is simple,but it certainly isn't easy!!!.

Macbank have just completed another SPP.Maximum you can buy now is $30K,I took the full $30K as I thought there was no chance of it being scaled back ,156 shares at $191.28 each.Watch that for the next 17 yrs,use the DRP and see what 300 shares in MQG are worth then.

WES I have owned for all of this century,as I have CBA since 1991 the float was I think .You needed to spend just under $6K to buy 1000 CBA.This grows to somewhere between 5 and 6000 now using the DRP..I have bought more on market along the way so again go to the company web site to work out how many shares.

WES you have doubled your money roughly in the last 3 years,after there spin out of Coles,more than doubled it.The previous 10 years,nothing,only dividends and a huge fright through the GFC when they may have gone under,perhaps saved by the ban on short selling of financial stocks. They had 2 capital raisings when everybody was terrified,one at $28 ish and one at $14 ish .I was very confident buying at $28,I was a bundle of nerves at $14 and had a few bad days back then,I bought none at $14. As at 30/6/21 a $1K investment on float in 1984 was worth $689 or $669K,I forget which,read the chairman's message in the annual report.Simple isn't it This is the bit that is not easy!!!.You wake up in the morning and look in the mirror,that is the enemy staring back at you,that is the team you are playing against.Will you spend say $60K to buy 1000 shares in WES, $50K for 500 in CBA,perhaps $100K for 500 inMQG.
Commit to pay the loan off as quick as you can. Commit to not listening to any of the non stop daily noise for the next 25 to 30 years.Commit to doing nothing at all for the same period,I don't know why people find any of these things difficult.
The really difficult one,should things go against you in the future admit,got it wrong,perhaps time to get out and look elsewhere. Not easy is it.

For Graham's transurban substitute APA for me.I have no idea which of them has performed better over the last 10 to 15 years.I pick companies,Graham has far to much diversification for me,that's what my super fund does
He may be right on a pull back,he may be wrong.Whatever happens I don't think he is going to gloat if he calls it right.I have no intention of gloating if he gets it wrong,it is a game of opinions,ultimately the person to blame for everything is the person in the mirror.

I don't live off capital,I live off dividends as the main source of income.I am very confident there will be no cut in my income for next year,I am aware it can happen though
Just my 2 cents worth.

Kevin
December 11, 2021

I should add WES have had some good returns of capital over the years. The last one being $2 a share which went into my bank account on 2 or 3 of this month this year.So $thousand there to add on to the dividend,around $1.80 a share That would needchecking on the company web site.

Andrew Smith
December 09, 2021

Interesting overview of experience, and resisting the temptation to continually micromanage and trade.

My own two bob's worth, 20 is fine, approaching retirement mix of growth, consolidation and income, using ETFs for up to 15-20% to access innovative and global sectors. Otherwise usual health, couple of banking (inc. MQG more infrastructure), supermarket, ag related/fertiliser, health & general insurance; review every quarter.

There is the issue of income stocks being taken over e.g. Ausnet and Spark which then requires dealing with a capital gain and where to invest for comparable income.

KPIs are P/E not too high, ROE 10%+, div'd (minimum 2% yield), etc. and future earnings which seem to be missed by short term noise.

Finally, it's ok to have couple of dogs or underperformers, as when push comes to shove, ditch them (for capital gains credits) when taking some cream off the top of performers; throw the proceeds of any 'dog' into super to regain value in medium term.

Lyn
December 09, 2021

On lighter note despite gurus, what's wrong with bit of fun with what I call play money to invest/gain/lose if can afford to do to retain brain marbles but not make huge errors in what one does not understand? 20 punches wouldn't suit me as I've learned so much along the way. I'd have been dead long ago without stimulation of researching companies, what they do, the financials, news listening re what may be new technology to invest in, talking to young people re trends, eg top-notch podiatrist re hash growing for medical use in his field which I would never have thought of. Not for everyone, but I'd rather use some money to stay alive, active and interested. I don't want to be boring at Buffet's age no matter how much he is worth with monastic way of life he seems to embrace. I can't see point of being monastic & boring when death is just around the corner. I'd rather talk to my podiatrist about investing in hash growing for health as he knows what's what & risk a bit for the fun of it !

Jane
December 12, 2021

I’m like you Lyn. It’s fascinating putting a few $’s in new and exciting companies that you research, following their progress, announcements, news, ups and downs, etc.
There is a heap of innovative Aussie companies out there that need a bit of support from shareholders.

Then there are the safer, long standing company’s, just as interesting with their progressive management, and offer of income producing dividends. Like all the ones mentioned here.

They are all never boring. Me I am nearly 70, my own financial adviser, own SMSF, and enjoy what I do. I cannot work out why reading some articles, it all sounds SO complicated, but still read them for others opinions.

Lyn
December 23, 2021

Hi Jane, Heartening comments to know someone AND another woman exactly like me, friends don't understand it, eyes glaze if try to explain & aghast use Mon-Fri as if a job and at desk at 9.45a.m. but should be approached as job if part of one's income. Late reply to you as been too busy spending my excess punches on Aussie made goods/services yet some youngsters think retirees a drain on economy, my gains go straight back into it keeping a few local jobs alive from trading fees down to tradesmen and lots in between, not hoarding as Buffet is purported to, clever though he may be! Pleasure to meet you Jane in this place.

Kevin
December 09, 2021

I never managed to make it to 20 companies.Probably 30% of the companies I own were spin outs WES and COL.
MQG and SYD
APA from the wreckage of Babcock and Brown I think.APA I bought more when you nudged me in that direction with the podcast,I hadn't noticed how low they had gone down to.
Concentrated portfolio outside of super,diversification ( not really a fan) in my super fund.
Probably one or two more spin outs that slip my mind,AHA,Westfield split into 2 URW and SCG.

I concentrate more on the dividends than what the actual price is .Perhaps value ( dividends ) is better than price ( the pot).Whether I have a cup of coffee or tea for breakfast is much akin to prices rising or falling every day,nothing I can do about it so I don't really pay much attention to it.Volatility is the price of being in the game for decades.

ivan
December 09, 2021

good article on how to be a winner . majority of traders are financial loosers

Allan
December 09, 2021

Buffett's trying to enthuse investors to limit themselves in buying stocks but 20 times in their lifetime conveniently leaves him and his ilk with the opportunity to play merry hell behind the scenes with a stealthily stacked 'deck' to punch-on. I'm surprised that instead of his trying to settle an old 'score', he didn't just decidedly 'dive' into giving everyone 'account of 10'.

George
December 09, 2021

Harsh interpretation. Buffett has held some stocks like Coke, Amex, Geico for decades, has often said he ignores the daily macro noise: Charlie and I spend essentially no time really thinking about macro factors.

H Fenton
December 09, 2021

Whenever I am tempted to jump on the stock-picking train I remember: for me to buy, someone else needs to sell. I always wonder who will turn out right!

C
December 12, 2021

people who sell don't necessarily think the company will do badly. they might be selling for portfolio rebalancing purposes, or because they need money for a car or house or tax, or traders locking in short term profits although the long term trend is still good.

Scott Andrews
December 09, 2021

Nice article Graham and great comment Mart. Buffett also recommends the '1 punch portfolio'.....buy a low cost index fund and contribute regularly (automatically) and don't touch. That is probably the best advice for everyone, as you get on with more important things in life and let compounding do its magic. Cheers.

Mart
December 08, 2021

Graham - finally ! An article that says what the majority of us know: none of us can stop tinkering or reacting to a tip of a 'sure fire' winner. Thank you ! Everything you say rings true. Personally I largely outsource investment choice to a small number of LIC / ETF providers that have consistently provided solid (dividend) returns over the years ... this suits me but I recognise it may not suit others. Like your pal I do enjoy looking a financial matters and "selecting winners" but the difference may be I do it for fun rather than actively trade (which I seldom do). So, my suggestion for a follow-up article: how do we educate ourselves to keep our fingers out of the cookie jar if trading or reacting to 'noise' or the adjusting due to TAA are a waste of time ?! I look forward to someone's advice on this .....

 

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