Review: Oblivious Investing

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book.

oblivious!The second I picked up Oblivious Investing by Mike Piper, I was immediately reminded of Michael Mihalik’s excellent Debt Is Slavery.

The two books have much in common. They’re written by people who aren’t personal finance gurus – instead, they just bring a lot of very specific passion about a very specific topic to the table. The books are short and very tight, drilling right in on their points. Their ideas are realistic and sensible – and the concepts are repeatedly backed up by both life experience and with the more lofty and scholarly writings of others.

While Mihalik drilled in on the dangers of debt, Piper’s focus is simple: investing can and should be simple and it shouldn’t require all your focus. Worrying about market fluctuations is bad. Picking stocks is a nerve-wracking gamble. Moving your money around all the time requires too much attention. Instead, Piper argues that we should be largely oblivious to our investments – and the idea is backed up with a lot of sound principles.

Piper’s book has two interconnected parts.

Part One: The Plan
Piper’s plan is very simple, but in those few pages he incorporates quite a lot of the ideas that have been written about for years by hundreds of investing experts – Burton Malkiel, John Bogle, and so on.

Here’s the idea. It’s possible to pick the best stocks if you have all of the information. However, there is so much information that it’s actually impossible for people – even people who devote their lives to the study – to absorb enough information to make those picks consistently.

What we can do is step back and look at some bigger patterns. Over the short term, the stock market fluctuates a lot – one only has to look at 2007 and 2008 to see that. Over the long term – ten to fifteen years or more – the stock market shows positive returns. Over even longer terms – twenty years or more – it shows very nice positive returns.

So, the first step is to figure out your goals. What are you saving for? How far off is that goal? If it’s not very far off, avoid the stock market – it’s too volatile. If it’s very far off (more than ten years), invest in the stock market – but invest in the whole stock market and do it as cheap as you can.

How do you do that? Buy index funds. Extremely broad index funds (like, for example, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index) let you own every stock in the stock market all at once, and the costs are very small.

So, your investment plan is this: if your goal is short term, invest a certain amount each week/month into bonds or CDs or something else very stable and with positive low returns. If your goal is long term, invest a certain amount each week/month into a broad based index fund. Then, forget about it until you get close to your goal.

Part Two: The Noise
Once you’ve made the decision to invest, the real trick is to filter out the noise.

First, train yourself to ignore what’s going on today, this week, this month, and this year. The stock market is volatile – live with it. The trick is to remember that you’re investing for the long term. Volatility doesn’t equal long-term risk. Another thing to remember is that short term stock market volatility is entirely unpredictable. So just ignore it.

Second, don’t bother chasing the “best” funds. Instead, just put your money in an index fund that matches the market for cheap. Why? A fund that’s the “best” one year is quite likely to not be the best in subsequent years – the market changes, investors herd into the fund and flood it with too much money so that the strategy doesn’t work any more, and there’s a lot of cost in jumping from fund to fund. Just pick a steady, average fund and leave it there – ignore the “fund of the minute” and the talking heads on CNBC.

Third, ignore specific stock tips. The ones in the media are often placed there by analysts who are set to profit from people following that tip. The one from your uncle might be useful or it might not be – but don’t bet your future on it. Ignore all the specific investment tips.

If you’re filtering out all of that, you’re left with just one thing: your plan. Keep investing, steady and surely, and don’t sweat the little swings or the panicked talking heads.

Is Oblivious Investing Worth Reading?
Oblivious Investing does a fantastic job of laying out the “buy and hold” strategy in layman’s terms that anyone can understand. For a person who simply wants to begin investing their money for the long term but doesn’t want to spend every day praying at the altar of CNBC, Oblivious Investing is a great read.

If you want detailed advice on portfolio management, this isn’t your book. If you want comparisons of individual investment strategies, this isn’t your book. Piper makes one big point throughout this book – he makes it thoroughly and clearly, but Oblivious Investing doesn’t try to be a Swiss Army investment book. If you want that, read The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing.

I should say, though, that I subscribe to the investing strategy in Oblivious Investing. It works well for me and this is the best layman’s description of it that I’ve yet read.