William Green has set himself a daunting task in “Richer, Wiser, Happier” (Scribner, $28.)
There is nothing wrong with his premise, which is clearly spelled out in his new book’s subtitle: “How the world’s greatest investors win in markets and life.” The challenge is that Mr. Green, who was an editor at Time magazine, has decided to go boldly where hundreds of writers have gone before.
A quick search turned up more than three dozen books on the approach that Warren E. Buffett, a central figure in this book, takes when it comes to investing. And many of Mr. Green’s other subjects, such as Howard Marks, of Oaktree Capital Management, and the tech veteran Mohnish Pabrai, have written their own books.
In fact, the idea of learning investing secrets of the pros has been around so long that when I worked at Forbes and Business Week in the 1980s, my colleagues and I joked that the typical Fortune cover was “How Bill Gates Made a Billion Dollars, and You Can, Too.”
But to his credit, Mr. Green manages to make the book worth your while, whether you pick your own stocks and buy actively managed mutual funds or are looking for confirmation that index funds are the way to go.
That’s a neat trick, which he pulls off with the help of engaging writing.
He cites the advice of Joel Greenblatt, a hedge fund manager, who once wrote, “Choosing individual stocks without any idea of what you are looking for is like running through a dynamite factory with a burning match. You may live, but you’re still an idiot.”
Mr. Green then describes his own experience: “Every few years, I ignore this warning and buy an individual stock against my better judgment. I own a tiny stake in a mining and property company recommended to me by a well-known investor, who shall remain nameless. How has it done? So far, it’s down 87 percent. For now, I’m keeping it as a painful reminder to be more careful around lit matches and dynamite.”
Throughout the book, Mr. Green lets the financial pros talk at length about their approach to finding investment success, and if there are contrasts in what they do, he lets the reader decide what is the best approach.
For example, Mr. Buffett says that — for the vanishingly small number of people who are sufficiently skilled and patient to do so — it’s worth making large bets on a relatively small number of carefully chosen companies, as he has done in investing for his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway. (Mr. Buffett doesn’t advise this approach for the vast majority of investors, however, as we shall see.)
On the other hand, William Danoff, who runs Contrafund, an actively managed mutual fund from Fidelity, says picking many stocks and putting them into a diversified portfolio is the way to go.
Mr. Green doesn’t choose sides. He simply reports on the views of investors who say the secret to success is buying good companies at relatively inexpensive prices, as well as on others who say it is OK to pay a premium if a company has substantial growth prospects.
But he does hammer home certain lessons he heard from the people he interviewed:
Don’t get in your own way. Don’t be emotional about your investments, and don’t chase fads.
If you don’t understand what a company does or don’t understand an investment opportunity you are being offered, stay away.
Keep enough cash on hand so you can weather the inevitable downturns without being forced to sell your holdings at a loss. And, he writes: “To achieve resilience, it’s imperative to reduce or eliminate debt, avoid leverage and beware of excessive expenses.”
Throughout the book he underscores the central premise that originality is overrated when it comes to investing. You don’t need to come up with your own unique approach. You can simply copy ideas that have worked for others.
“The overarching purpose of this book,” Mr. Green writes, “is to share what I would call ideas worth cloning.”
Throughout, Mr. Green points out lessons that can also be applied to your personal life.
“Both in markets and life, the goal isn’t to embrace risk or eschew it, but to bear it intelligently while never forgetting the possibility of an unpleasant outcome,” he writes. He adds later on: “Nothing is more essential than our capacity to survive the most difficult times not only financially but emotionally.”
As much as I like the book, there are a few things I wish Mr. Green had done differently.
Yes, these are successful men — and just about everyone mentioned in the book is male — but his appreciation of them can sometimes veer into fawning. Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management is described as a “philosopher-king of finance,” and Joel Greenblatt, “a giant among giants,” has “a beguiling manner and warm smile.”
Mr. Green doesn’t always explain how investors made their money. “Through a combination of luck and smarts,” one investor prospered, he says, without ever saying how.
I also wish he had emphasized what many of his subjects mentioned in passing: The vast majority of people don’t have the time or ability to search out potentially great stocks on their own, no matter who they try to emulate. They would be far better off investing in well-diversified, low-cost index funds, which consistently outperform the majority of actively managed portfolios.
Of course, investing in index funds, which are designed only to match the performance of specific benchmarks like the S&P 500, is not as exciting as dreaming of becoming the next Warren Buffett.
But as Mr. Buffett himself has said to investors who dream of trying to beat the stock market: Don’t. Instead, Mr. Buffett says, nearly everyone who can afford to invest money for the long term should buy a low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (Mr. Buffett has also said he plans to advise the trustee of his own estate to invest 90 percent of it in an S&P 500 index fund and the rest in government bonds.)
If you are thinking of emulating a great investor, that is worth keeping in mind.
Mr. Green makes that point indirectly when he talks about whether following the path of great investors is right for you. “You need to ask yourself whether you truly have the skills and temperament to beat the market.”