Understand, Then Invest

It was many years ago that I first read the book Small is Beautiful by the economist E.F Schumacher. It’s not a popular book in business circles. Shumacher’s concepts of getting by with the least possible and smallest possible set of resources seem outlandish to a certain audience. To most businessmen, ‘enoughness’ seems to be an idea more suited to a hippie commune from the sixties than to the world as they see it functioning.

This may seem like a long jump, but I personally believe that for a non-professional investor, a derivation of Shumacher’s approach would work very well an investment philosophy. This is something that I would call the ‘Simple is Beautiful’ approach. It could also be called ‘Do Less to Do More’ approach.

This approach is based on my belief, borne out of many years of interacting with investors, that far more people go wrong by trying to do much than by doing too little. In personal investments, the solution is not to do a lot, but to do only the minimum possible.

The ‘Simple is Beautiful’ approach means sticking to some basic time-tested principles; by investing in the minimum possible number of securities and by taking the fewest possible actions. In the last couple of decades, the culture of investing (and of finance in general, and perhaps of all business) has shifted towards a worship of complexity for its own sake. More and more people assume that any investment methodology that doesn’t involve mysterious formulae, and arcane ratios and elaborate charts couldn’t possibly deliver the goods. The truth is the exact opposite. This complexity is just smoke and mirrors erected by a priesthood in order to create a need for their services.

How would such a simple approach work in practice? Here’s one example, which could well serve as the recipe for the perfect financial plan. You should keep all the money that you might possibly need for at least the next five-to-seven years in a safe fixed-income investment.

The reason is obvious-this is the money that must always be on call. Only safety matters, nothing else. Longer term investments should be invested in a small number — three to four — of conservatively run equity funds with a good track record. Remember, the five-to-seven-year time horizon is a sliding window. Money should be moved from equity to fixed income as its date of usage comes near. The investments in equity should be gradual — shoving money into equity-backed investments in one fell swoop when things get hot is courting disaster, but I suppose everyone should know that after the experience of the last couple of years.

Is this an example the best possible plan? Well, that depends on your definition of best. I think this plan is the best one because its basic principles require no further understanding. It’s optimised not for returns, but for the best combination of comprehension and returns. It’s very important to do only those things that we understand ourselves.

In personal finance, there are few issues that are as full of obfuscation, such as insurance. Few financial products that are intended for individuals are as full of complexity as modern insurance products. However, keeping the ‘Simple is Beautiful’ principle in mind, it isn’t difficult to cut through this thicket.

Here’s what you need to do. Make a liberal estimate of how much money your family will need if you should fail to wake up tomorrow morning and buy the cheapest term insurance you can find. Do diversify your insurance across LIC and two private insurers — one is no longer confident of who’s going to be solvent tomorrow. You should buy lots of term insurance, but never even think of buying any other product from an insurance company. In their mixed savings+insurance products like ULIPs, the huge commissions and obfuscated expenses they charge will kill your real returns.

One important component of the ‘Simple is Beautiful’ approach is to somehow avoid having to react to market ups and downs. This is a major advantage of the kind of approach to investment that I’m describing.

If you have an investment plan needs tailoring to suit the season then it’s useless to begin with. Almost by definition, the only useful approach to investing is one that does not need to change in reaction, or worse, in anticipation, of events. The approach that I describe would be just as good during the lows of March 2009 as it was at the highs of January 2008. Or in fact at any other point of time in the past decades. The ‘Simple is Beautiful’ approach is structured around your life, not that of some investment market. In this approach, you change your financial plan when something happens in your life, not in the stock market.

One characteristic of this approach is the emphasis on understanding things yourself rather than being dependent on some expert who is pushing his own agenda. This goes against the grain of modern financial industry, but understandability is a more important characteristic of any investment than high returns or anything else. Far more people get into trouble by putting money into things that they don’t understand rather than by earning a little lower return.

Does that mean that experts are not needed at all? Not really, except perhaps to tell you that you don’t need an expert! Seriously, this is the gold standard of investment principles. No one should ever dabble in an investment that they don’t understand personally. It’s better to let a good investment pass by rather than invest in anything that you don’t understand. An expert’s role is not to tell you where to invest — it’s to show you how to decide for yourself.

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