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"A little learning is a dangerous thing."
on April 6, 2008
Becoming an investor who can quite regularly beat a broad based index (e.g. S&P 500) is near impossible. Just ask two of the most famous investors ever: John Bogle of Vanguard (who wrote his own "Little Book" warning investors to stay away from anything but low cost index funds) and Warren Buffett (of Berkshire Hathaway who also recommends index funds for the average investor). They point out that numerous studies show professional money managers (mutual funds) fail to beat the index funds they set out to beat time and time again--and trying to find the few mutual funds that will beat the index is close to a fool's errand. And when regular folks try to pick individual stocks, the results are even worse. Unfortunately, there is one problem with index fund investing: it's boring. Very boring. Moreover, we, for better or worse (worse in the case of investing in capital markets), don't like to be "average" and index fund investing by definition will only yield "average" results.
So investors try very hard to be more than average. And they start by buying books like this one.
This is where Dorsey comes in. He borrows Warren Buffett's now famous concept of 'moats', which is just another term for a structural competitive advantage of a business, and shows his readers how to find them, evaluate them, and then use them to make a profit by investing in individual stocks. Dorsey's game plan is straightforward: find a great business with a moat and buy it only you can get it for less than it's intrinsically worth. The book is well-organized, uses plain-written language and is easily understandable; Dorsey's categories of different moats are well thought out and he provides multiple examples in each moat category.
Here's my problem with this book: Dorsey has you believe that if you can master the concept of moats then you, little you, should spend some time trying to "beat the market." To do this right, however, requires more time than almost any investor (even those who are retired or fanatical) has. First, you have to find a great business with a moat (not as easy as it sounds and it entails both qualitative and quantitative analysis). Then you have to value it (also not easy). Then you have to figure out how much of your portfolio to invest in that company (this step Dorsey conspicuously leaves out which is critical and often overlooked - I would recommend the Kelly Formula outlined in the book "Fortune's Formula"). Then you have to stay up-to-date with the corporation (and its competitors) by reading news stories, press releases, and quarterly reports. Finally you have to watch the stock price: if the stock goes down a lot but the moat and intrinsic value hasn't shrunk, you should buy more of the stock (this is hard for most investors to do) and if the price goes up and the moat or intrinsic value hasn't grown as fast as the stock price, you should sell some of the stock. Get any of these steps wrong along the way and you are sunk. Oh, and you will likely be following multiple companies in your portfolio. Are we still having fun?
As you can now start to tell, applying this "little book" will take a lot of your time. Of course, you could beat the market, but chances are you will make a few mistakes that could cost you a lot of money. My recommendation is to use the book instead in two counterintuitive ways. First, use it to understand what make a great business "great" and if you are thinking about opening your own business, figure out how you can create a moat for it, no matter how small. Second, if you are working in corporate America use the concept of moats to make your company better.
But if you use the book for what and who it is intended for, be forewarned.