Keynes didn’t look like a great investor all the time.
As a value investor, focused on buying stocks at bargain prices, he got left behind in the torrid bull market of the 1920s. Keynes didn’t see the Great Depression coming; he went into the Crash of 1929 with roughly 90% of the college’s funds in stocks even though, at the time, most other endowments overwhelmingly preferred bonds.
By late 1929 Keynes had cumulatively underperformed the British stock market by 40 percentage points over the preceding five years.
But he was already turning his performance around.
How Keynes mustered the courage to invest heavily in U.S. stocks devastated by the crash and the ensuing depression.
Keynes had almost entirely ignored U.S. stocks in the college’s endowment until September 1930. What a time to get interested!
The U.S. stock market had fallen 38.4% over the preceding 12 months. But Keynes was so excited by the bargains he saw opening up in the U.S. that he worked with a small New York brokerage, Case Pomeroy & Co., to research the market and his own stock ideas.
In 1931, when U.S. stocks fell a bloodcurdling 47.1%, and again in 1934, when they dropped another 5.9%, Keynes traveled to the U.S., spending much of his time meeting people on Wall Street, in government and in business who could help him research his investment ideas.
He bought U.S. stocks throughout the depression.
When they fell another 38.6% in 1937, Keynes, undaunted, bought still more.
By 1939, he had put half his main portfolio for the college in U.S. companies, favoring
- high-dividend-paying preferred stocks,
- investment trusts (diversified stock portfolios similar to today’s mutual funds) and, later on,
- public utilities.
Buy when blood was running in the streets
Keynes’ words still ring with the resolve it must have taken to buy when blood was running in the streets:
“The spectacle of modern investment markets has sometimes moved me towards the conclusion that to make the purchase of an investment permanent and indissoluble, like marriage, except by reason of death or other grave cause, might be a useful remedy for our contemporary evils. For this would force the investor to direct his mind to the long-term prospects and to those only.”
Bear markets are unpredictable, reliably sidestepping them is nearly impossible
Keynes understood, as did his contemporary, the American value investor Benjamin Graham, that bear markets are so unpredictable that reliably sidestepping them is nearly impossible — and that the pain of losing money is nearly unbearable.
Buying into bear markets is the way to prevail
Still, Keynes knew, barging into bear markets to buy, rather than trying to sidestep them, is the way to prevail. Since, over the long run, stocks tend to go up more than they go down, one of the greatest advantages an investor can have is the gumption to buy stocks aggressively in falling markets.
That requires both cash and courage.
With stocks still not far from their record highs today, sitting on some cash is a better idea than ever.
And — unless you’re in or near retirement, in which case you should probably be scaling back on stocks already — steel your courage. Write a binding contract with yourself, witnessed by a friend or family member, committing you to buy more stocks when they fall 25%, 50% or more. Years from now, you’ll be glad you did.
Source: The Wall Street Journal