In our messy world, many aphorisms sound reasonable, but are flawed. One such saying is “There are many ways to make money”. Sure, there’s Buffett. But there’s also George Soros. Jim Simons. Peter Lynch. Each had a different approach and made tons of money. Hence proved. To illustrate a flaw in this line of reasoning, let me use a Test cricket analogy.
There are many ways to be a successful test batsman. Sure, there’s Dravid. But there’s also Sehwag and Steve Smith. Each had a different approach and a good test career. Hence proved. It’s easier to see the flaw here. Yes, there are many ways but they’re far from equivalent. In fact, there’s a big difference between one approach and the rest. The Sehwag way worked only for Sehwag. The Smith way works only for Smith. However, the Dravid way worked for Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Kohli, Pujara, Lara, Waugh, Ponting, Williamson, Root, Kallis, Sanga and, most recently, Mayank and Marnus.
The central difference lies in learnability, reliability and repeatability of the method, across a range of (reasonably skilled) participants. Imagine you took a group of promising high-school batsmen and taught them to bat in different ways. The average kid will end up better off after absorbing Dravid’s principles. The average kid who tries to clone Sehwag will give up cricket for Kota. Not surprisingly, there’s only one approach that coaches teach promising high-school batsmen.
I am not suggesting that all the batsmen mentioned are Dravid’s clones. Lara’s flair or the flourish in Kallis’s drives are unique. However, the general tenets are common enough to recognize that these are followers of a classical batting approach. On occasion, there’s an exception like Sehwag or Smith who does well. However, coaches and aspiring players realize that these are freaks of nature, not to be imitated. The best odds lie in the Dravid way.
Back to investing. Jim Simons was extraordinarily successful in applying quantitative techniques to investing. If you asked me to invest like him, I wouldn’t know where to start. His (admittedly opaque) methods worked for a very unique man who could do mathematics worthy of a Fields medal. I threw out my copy of Irodov to avoid becoming clinically depressed. It is folklore that Soros shorted the pound. Confession: I have no clue what to do with that factoid. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does. There’s no basis for figuring out when and how to short any currency, even after reading every word he’s written (I like his reflexivity idea, though). However, after reading everything Buffett wrote, I just might be able to think correctly about Asian Paints as a business.
So, here’s the nuance. I know of many people who made money. But, I don’t know of many ways to make money. I know of only one. You still have to be highly skilled to pull it off, much like how anyone cannot become a good test batsman. It’s the equivalent of Dravid’s batting method. It will improve odds for most. What’s that approach? Stocks are part ownership in businesses. Assess what businesses are worth, where possible. Ideally, stick to good ones. Buy only if undervalued. If they stay good, stay put. Sure, it worked for Buffett. But some variant of it also worked for Graham, Keynes, Munger, Simpson, Schloss, Ruane, Browne and Klarman.
I am generally aware of assorted batting techniques that go by names such as macro, quantitative, thematic, momentum or trading. I may even know the name of a seemingly successful proponent or two in some of these approaches. However, I struggle to extract a set of coherent, actionable tenets out of whatever I’ve studied. Ideally, I’d like to see the tenets in situ, reflected in the actions of a real investor with real money over a long time. I find hypothetical strategies involving back-testing to be unreliable, as these are mainly used by academics for tenure and investors for marketing. Without this underlying clarity of method, a proponent is a lot closer to Sehwag or Smith than to Dravid, from the perspective of a student of investing.
It is very hard to excel at the highest levels of any profession. It is impossible without the tailwind of a method that demonstrably improves odds of success for most people who try. One that can be broken down into elements, by a capable coach or player. One that's reliable, repeatable, teachable and learnable. One that has worked for many who've excelled in the past. Notwithstanding freakish exceptions, there aren't many ways to reliably excel. There are a few. Maybe one.