Tuesday, March 27, 2007

John Burr Williams: Investing Versus Speculating

John Burr Williams believed that the stock market was far more volatile than the long-run dividend paying abilities of the underlying companies would justify. This fixation with the short-term, led to periods of gross over and undervaluation in stocks, which, in turn, led to booms and busts in the economy. Williams believed that the cycle of booms and busts caused many people to lose faith in the free market economy and the markets, which ultimately led to the socialist-like economic policies of the 1930s. His book was not about beating the market, or getting rich in the market, it was really a wake-up call to the investment elite of his time to offer them a theory of investment value that would encourage more long-term investing and less speculation. Williams realized that speculators would always be with us, and were a legitimate enterprise, but he wanted to provide tools for investors to aid them in making decisions based on the “investment value” of a company, not just its price momentum. Williams postulated that investors’ inability to properly value stocks, increasingly, led them to become speculators. Most people would not admit that they were speculators, but when they were asked to explain their buy and sell decisions, it was clear that they were not appraising the intrinsic value of companies, but betting that they knew something that the market did not. In one of Williams’s most insightful observations, he makes the following statement: “To gain by speculation, a speculator must be able to foresee price changes. Since price changes coincide with changes of marginal opinion, he must, in the last analysis, be able to foresee changes in opinion. Successful speculation consists in just this. It requires no knowledge of intrinsic value as such, but only what people are going to believe intrinsic value to be. . . . Hence, some old traders think it is a handicap, a real handicap, to let themselves reach any conclusion whatsoever as to the true worth of the stocks they speculate in. How to foretell changes in opinion is the heart of the problem of speculation, just as how to foretell changes in dividend is the heart of the problem of investment. Since opinion is made by the news, the task of forecasting opinion resolves itself into the task of forecasting the news. There are two ways to do this: either cheat in the matter, or study the forces at work. Cheating has been outlawed, so far as can be, by the Security Act of 1934. The other way to forecast the news, and thus the change of opinion and the movement of prices, is to study the forces at work, in the belief that ‘’coming events cast their shadows before.’ But, rare is the man so sagacious as to foresee, so certain as to believe, and so steadfast as to remember; he who is makes a good speculator. Every speculator’s life is strewn with regrets, vain regrets for the news that he did not understand until it was too late. That ‘time and tide wait for no man’ he knows full well; like a bird on the wing must be shot in a jiffy, or she flies out of range forever. Hence, the first speculative opinions are usually wide of the mark, and as such, they usually need to be revised by the later trading of those who have had time for a sober second thought.” John Burr Williams was not condemning the speculators, but he was trying to open the eyes of investors to the fact that, as Ben Graham said, “In the short run the market is a voting machine (popularity contest), while in the long run it is a weighing machine (measure of value).” This is the sum total, essence, bottom line, and raison d'etre of Donaldson Capital Management. Long-term values of companies are determinined by what you can get out of them. That is why we scrutinize dividend levels and dividend growth. This is where value is created. This is where value can be measured. Finally, this is where we can find opportunties. Opportunities that are being shunned because today's news is not positive or is murky, but opportunities that have already discounted all the bad news and now stand ready to rise, driven by the intrinsic value of the company. Amen