What caught my eye this week.
War pioneer and on/off conqueror of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte, supposedly said he’d pick a lucky general over a good one.
Investors might take the same deal.
Alas, there’s apparently no evidence that Napoleon stated the preference that’s famously ascribed to him.
Which is a shame. Trying to invade Russia in winter seems hubristic. It’d be nice to think there was some offsetting humility and self-awareness in the mix. A little balance to the man.
Of course, bloody and chaotic 19th Century battles and trading stocks at your online broker might not seem to have much in common. And that’s because they don’t.
But one thing they do share is that fortune plays a big role – especially in the short-term.
(If your experience of investing is any closer than that to getting shot at close-quarters with a musket, you might want to consider switching platforms).
Sympathy for the Devil
Indeed for some academics the jury is still out as to whether even a long-term record of out-performance can better be chalked up to luck.
Warren Buffett, they say, is just the same kind of statistical anomaly you’d expect to see if you asked a few hundred million people to flip coins and someone did a thousand heads in a row.
I don’t believe this myself. But I do accept we’ve not got much evidence to go on.
Investing in securities as we recognize it today has only been going on for a few lifetimes, and only over a limited number of economic cycles, with a very quirky sequence of returns (e.g. World War 2), and with technology and society broadly headed in a particular direction.
Would we know the name Buffett in a parallel universe where the Nazis conquered London or the semi-conductor was invented 20 years earlier?
We cannot know. But it seems unlikely.
For a less existentially taxing case study of luck at play, consider my history with Amazon shares.
As a former Amazon shareholder – and keen watcher of the technology sector – I gasped with everyone else when Amazon shares fell more than 10% on Friday.
Amazon’s market cap is over $1 trillion. Ten percent of that is real money, even for Buffett.
The stock eventually pared its losses as the day progressed and the market ripped higher, but still I couldn’t help thinking about my lucky escape. (And thanking the investing gods!)
Long-time readers may recall I sold my large – un-sheltered – Amazon holding back in February 2021.
Around that time I also disposed of a big position in a technology trust that I’d been holding forever, again outside of an ISA or a SIPP.
Why were they unsheltered, I hear you rightly ask?
Well that was a legacy of getting religion about ISAs only several years into my journey (and of pensions being unattractive alternatives, prior to the reforms).
I spent many subsequent years trying to manage down these positions, given the limited annual ISA and pension contribution allowances.
Which is why I have always been strident that you shouldn’t be as dumb as me and instead fill your ISAs to the max.
And also how I learned so much about defusing capital gains tax, despite not owning a boat.
Start me up
Anyway, by early 2021 I had it down to just the tech trust and the Amazon shares outside of my shelters.
These two now-huge-for-me positions lasted longest for two reasons.
Firstly they paid no dividend. Rightly or (as it turned out, given the capital gains, probably) wrongly I had prioritized dealing with un-sheltered income payers first. Not least because I hated the self-assessment paperwork.
But secondly, as time went on I knew I faced a capital gains tax bill of many tens of thousands of pounds when I did tackle them.
I’d diligently used my CGT allowances to defuse down those other holdings. So there was nothing to spare in any given year, which meant I faced the high-quality problem of ever-larger gains and a bigger nailed-on future tax bill.
After all, my Amazon stock had more than ten-bagged since I bought it.
Paying taxes on investment gains savages your returns. It also feels rotten – like you took all the risk and Joe Spender down the road gets some of your gains.
Still by early 2021 the size of the position and the fact it was unsheltered was doing my head in.
So I sold: at $3,328 in old money, or $166.40 today.
Time is on my side
Amazon shares fell below $100 on Friday, so you can imagine my feelings. I’d dodged a more than 40% loss by dumping my shares very close to the top. I was well ahead, even after the tax bill.
Yet more evidence I’m an investing genius!
Indeed if I was another kind of commentator I’d get a dozen TikTok videos out of all this.
Alas, the real story is more edifying.
For one thing, while I was certainly worried about the frothiness in markets in early 2021, I was more focused when it came to my Amazon position on UK politics and the state of the nation’s finances.
Because while it didn’t seem like State borrowing would be a problem so long as low rates prevailed, the new Covid-era chancellor Rishi Sunak had made plain he wanted to make down-payments on the national debt.
The talk was that capital gains tax would rise.
Now, I’ve heard that such taxes are going to rise every year for as long as I’ve been investing. Platforms invariably provide quotes to the financial media every ISA season. This encourages people to put more into tax shelters, and hence increase the platforms’ assets under management.
All good fun, but not something I took very seriously.
But this year was different.
Even by early 2021 lots of people had already forgotten just how generous the State had been in supporting workers and the economy through 2020. But the fact was the bill was enormous, and it had been put on the never-never.
So I could well believe taxes would rise. Why not target investors who’d made an unexpected killing in the lockdown bubble?
I have to be humble then because I sold partly in fear of capital gains tax rises. Doubly humble, given that as things turned out the capital gains tax rise never came.
Strike one off the genius tally.
But secondly and even more candidly, if I’d held Amazon in my ISA then I’m pretty sure I would have sold it years earlier. I would never have been sat on such a big gain in the first place.
Even today I tend to turn over my portfolio fairly frequently as an active investor. (Remember my Tesla car crash?)
In those days I was much worse.
It’s not quite a bad as it might seem. My overall returns are good. Stuff I sell tends to get recycled into other stuff that does well, on average.
But at the same my returns over the years have been juiced by my stellar run with Amazon.
And the reality is that if I’d held Amazon in an ISA – especially ten years ago – I’d probably have banked my profits after the first 100% or so.
Hence leaving maybe 1,000% on the table.
So there you go. As I watched Amazon tank this week (and Alphabet and Meta too, given the big position in the technology trust I’d sold at the same time) I allowed myself a smile.
Perhaps I even started to tell myself a story about how good an investor I am.
But I’d prefer to tell you something closer to the truth, which is that this time I was definitely a lucky one.
Have a great weekend all!
Plum: can an app help you save and invest more money? – Monevator
All about bond duration – Monevator
From the archive-ator: Hey buddy, want to buy a conglomerate? – Monevator
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Weak pound delivers £7.2bn boost to UK dividends in 2022 – UK Dividend Monitor
Which pensions will rise with inflation in 2023? – Which
Foxtons profits from sky-high demand for London properties to rent – This Is Money
Elon Musk clears out Twitter bosses in $44bn deal – BBC
Stocks bottom first – The Irrelevant Investor
Products and services
From Premium Bonds to savings, NS&I boosts rates across its range – NS&I
Mortgage shock: what next for embattled borrowers? [Search result] – FT
FCA proposes new labels to make it easier to choose sustainable investments – Which
Open a SIPP with Interactive Investor and pay no SIPP fee for six months. Terms apply – Interactive Investor
“People had to urinate in Pringles pots”: passengers on Avanti travel trauma – Guardian
Given their mediocre show in 2022, UK investors aren’t missing out on ‘buffer funds’ – Morningstar
Isolated homes for Halloween, in pictures – Guardian
Comment and opinion
White couch – Fortunes & Frictions
The bear hasn’t broken passive yet [Search result] – FT
“Why has my pension transfer value plunged from £740,000 to £340,000?” – This Is Money
I’d like to fix your dryer – Joseph Wells
How the 60/40 portfolio makes a comeback – Of Dollars and Data
What could the new UK prime minister mean for your money? – Which
Indexing has saved investors $403 billion since 1996 – The Evidence-based Investor
Infrastructure as an inflation hedge – Klement on Investing
Dividends as the answer to the safe withdrawal conundrum – Freedom Day Solutions
Crypt o’ crypto
Matt Levine’s big Crypto story was all the rage this week – Bloomberg
Naughty corner: Active antics
The advantage of high dividend stocks in a stagflationary environment – JP Morgan
It’s the best time for bonds in more than a decade – Think Advisor
Story stocks – Humble Dollar
Is GSK a good stock for dividend investors? – UK Dividend Stocks
Quality time for small cap [Free registration to read] – GMO
Thematic versus momentum investing – Finominal
Understanding Snowflake, the highly-rated cloud darling – The Diff
How the Fed causes (model) inflation – Barry Ritholz
Kindle book bargains
The Charisma Myth: Master the Art of Personal Magnetism by Olivia Fox Cabane – £0.99 on Kindle
Mastering The Market Cycle by Howard Marks – £0.99 on Kindle
Go Big: How To Fix Our World by Ed Miliband – £0.99 on Kindle
Talking To My Daughter: A Brief History Of Capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis – £0.99 on Kindle
World close to ‘irreversible’ climate breakdown, warn major studies – Guardian
Transition to net zero will cost $100 trillion globally in green investment – BNY Mellon
A warming Med is forming crystals and belching CO2 – Hakai
Climate crisis fueling unseasonably warm October in UK and Europe, say experts – Guardian
In praise of spiders – Outside
Off our beat
LinkedIn, where irony goes to die – Young Money
AI-generated political figures as Warhammer figurines – via Twitter
How the UK became one of the poorest countries in Europe – The Atlantic
AI will require you to relearn how you use the Internet – Bloomberg
Expectations and reality – Morgan Housel
48 hours in Wrexham – Inside Hook
Eat mushrooms, cut down on meat, and use the microwave for health and the planet – Guardian
“I wake up at 8.59am, one minute before my remote job, and I don’t care what you think” – Fortune
A manual for the low-EQ leader – Summation [h/t Abnormal Returns]
“Members of Parliament would once have expected to wait a decade or more before entering the Commons and joining the Cabinet, if they ever did. Rishi Sunak did it in 50 months.”
– Michael Ashcroft, Going For Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak
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