developing competence as an equity investor

Zen…

The teachers of many sports or craft skills use a Zen-like scale to rate students on their progress toward mastery of their specialty.  The scale typically has four levels, that are often expressed as:

–unconscious incompetence

–conscious incompetence

–conscious competence

–unconscious competence.

…and investing

I think these classifications have some relevance for us as individual investors.  Here’s my take on each–

1.  unconscious incompetence.  This is where everyone starts out.  You know you’re smart–certainly smarter than most of the people you see on stock market cable shows.  You’re successful at your career.  You’re informed about economics.  You read the financial press.  You look at stock prices every day.  You think that’s enough.

People at this stage misunderstand two related things (at the very least I did):

–investing is a craft skill.  Almost every concept is easy to understand.  Complexity comes from the way simple ideas are repeated and combined into intricate and less-than-obvious structures.  Here, experience is more important than having a stratospheric IQ.

–the person on the other side of the trade knows much more than you suspect.  Typically, it’s someone who has served a five-year apprenticeship under an experienced professional investor and has maybe ten years of experience working on this own.  That translates into 50 hours a week gathering information about stocks.  More than that, the person probably spends most of that time focusing on a single stock market sector–or even a single industry, or a subsection of that industry.  Yes, some of these professionals actually have two years experience 7.5 times (meaning they’ve been spinning their wheels for most of their careers–thank goodness for that).  But even so, that’s 5000 hours studying the stocks they tend to buy and sell.  How good is the hot tip from your buddy Charlie in comparison?

2.  conscious incompetence.   Some people remain in stage one forever.  They either don’t evaluate their investment performance vs. their objectives or a benchmark, or their underperformace doesn’t register because it doesn’t square with their self-image.

Others–here I’m much more familiar with what starting-out professionals do that with ordinary individuals–begin to understand that this activity, like almost any other where professionals are involved, is harder than it seems.  They react to the situation in two ways:

–they stop doing the things that lose them the most money, and

–they begin to work harder at learning the ropes.  If they can, they find a successful investor who is willing to teach and who will take them as an apprentice.

3.  conscious competence. At this stage, an investor knows:

–enough accounting to read company financial statements with ease and understands the important financial variables in a company’s success

–enough microeconomics (which is mostly common sense, in my view) to evaluate a firm’s competitive strengths and weaknesses

–how to create a detailed spreadsheet to estimate future earnings (or to forecast other relevant metrics)

–from reading 10-Ks or elsewhere, the financial history of the companies and industries he’s interested in

–that his research process, and his plan for monitoring the key variables his research has uncovered, generally lead to success.

4.  unconscious competence.  This is the Zen stuff.  In sports, it’s the idea that after you’ve done enough conscious practicing, you’ve engrained knowledge deeply enough that you can/should cultivate “the zone.”  You try to stop thinking out what you intend to do and let your unconscious run the show.

In the most literal sense, I don’t think there’s a place for this in investing.  The reason?  –the activity is much more complex than any sport, so accumulated experience isn’t enough to rely on.

Nevertheless, there is something analogous.  For example:  you may encounter a new investment idea.  You know it will easily take a month or more to do the research you need to make an informed decision to buy or not (for me, it usually takes me over a year to become completely comfortable with a stock).  On the other hand, you see that the stock is already beginning to outperform as others become aware of it.  What do you do?

At some point I think every seasoned professional develops a sense of what research tasks are crucial and which amount to crossing the ts and dotting the is, and can be done after buying a small position in the stock.  In effect, you develop a feeling of confidence that a stock has a chance to be an outstanding performer that’s based in part on unconscious processing of information that you aren’t yet able to articulate consciously.

Some veteran investors (me among them) consider this a competitive advantage.  They rarely, if ever, talk about this.  On the other hand, some use “hunches” as a substitute for doing basic research work.  That’s very bad.  If investors like this are not “managed” by their subordinates–analysts or portfolio managers–they threaten to bring down whole investing operations.  Still others shy away from the idea of unconscious thought completely, and remain at stage 3.  I think it’s foolish not to use all the tools at your disposal, but such investors may simply be recognizing their limitations and acting accordingly.

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