The Intelligent Investor: The Defensive Investor and Common Stocks

intelligentThis is the sixth in a weekly series of articles providing a chapter-by-chapter in-depth “book club” reading of Benjamin Graham’s investing classic The Intelligent Investor. Warren Buffett describes this book: “I read the first edition of this book early in 1950, when I was nineteen. I thought then that it was by far the best book about investing ever written. I still think it is.” I’m reading from the 2003 HarperBusiness Essentials paperback edition. This entry covers the fifth chapter, which is on pages 112 to 123, and the Jason Zweig commentary, on pages 124 to 132.

There’s one big underlying theme to this book that I didn’t expect. Yet, it keeps coming to the forefront again and again. It’s the one point that I believe Graham wants people to take home from this book.

Strong, thorough research is the most important part about owning stocks.

If you can’t – or aren’t willing to – put in a lot of time studying individual stocks, identifying ones that genuinely have potential to return good value to you over time, and keep careful tabs on those individual stocks, then you shouldn’t be investing in stocks.

Over and over again, Graham makes this point, in both obvious and subtle ways. He’s a strong, strong believer in knowing the company. If you don’t have clear, concrete reasons for buying a stock, then you shouldn’t be buying that stock, period.

What if you don’t have that time? This book was written before the advent of index funds, but I tend to think that broad-based index funds can be a reasonable replacement for the stock portion of your portfolio.

Chapter 5 – The Defensive Investor and Common Stocks
Graham’s advice, then, tends to focus on people who are willing to put in that extra time – and if you’re willing to do that, he has a lot of wisdom to share.

First of all, diversify. You should own at least ten different stocks, but more than thirty might be a mistake, as it becomes difficult to follow all of them carefully and also seek out new potential stock investments.

Second, invest in only large, prominent, and conservatively financed companies. Look for ones with little debt on the books and ones with a large market capitalization.

Third, invest only in companies with a long history of paying dividends. If a company rarely pays dividends, your only way to earn money from that company is if the market deems the stock to be valuable, and you shouldn’t trust that the market will do so.

Graham seems to point strongly towards the thirty stocks that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a good place to start looking, as they usually match all of these criteria. I’d personally stretch that to include stocks that make up the S&P 500, but the Dow is a great place to find very large blue chip companies that are very stable and have paid dividends for a long time.

Other than that, Graham pooh-poohs many other common strategies. Buying growth stocks? Nope. Dollar-cost averaging? Good in theory, not great in practice. Portfolio adjustments? Be very, very careful – and only do annual evaluations. In short, be very, very wary and play it very, very cool.

Remember, this is Graham’s advice for the defensive, very conservative investor.

Commentary on Chapter 5
So, what does Jason Zweig have to say about all of this?

His big point is that simply “buying what you know” isn’t enough. You shouldn’t buy Starbucks’ stock simply because you drink their coffee. You need to spend the time to analyze the company’s situation, both internally and in the marketplace, and determine whether or not it’s a reasonable value. You can’t get there just by knowing the products they produce.

Zweig seems to generally feel that most people on the ground that are defensive investors are better off just buying mutual funds (preferably index funds) or seeking help from investment advisors, because the work needed to adequately study enough companies to build a good defensive portfolio is beyond what’s available to most people in their busy lives.

For me? I might tinker with individual stock buying, but I think I’d prefer to keep most of my money in index funds, simply because I, too, don’t feel like I have adequate time to really study enough stocks to build a good defensive stock portfolio.

Next Friday, we’ll look at Chapter 6: Portfolio Policy for the Enterprising Investor: Negative Approach.

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