Normally I don’t read books about investment, but I know and like Guy Spier, author of The Education of a Value Investor, so obviously I was going to buy it. And, once I started, I devoured the book in a couple of train journeys. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read.
The investment advice is actually pretty straightforward: be a value investor. Guy is a *huge* admirer of Warren Buffett.
What’s far more interesting, and perhaps even practically useful, in the book is the advice about how to build into your life the capability to be a value investor. Guy does this through recounting his own career, intellectual and psychological trajectory, from ambitious ex-Oxford and HBS financier living the high life in New York to well-grounded, Zurich-based investment fund manager and family man. The personal story carries the underlying message about the psychology and morality of investing in a very appealing narrative.
For the difficulty in actually being a value investor, as Guy explains it, is human psychology – the strength of social pressure, of ‘everybody’s doing it’, the buzz of responding to the latest information, the imperatives created by rivalry and status. He cites the literature on behavioural economics and finance, and also explains how he has put it into practice in his own life. For example, he checks Bloomberg screens and stock prices only occasionally and has the terminal in a separate room from the place he reads and thinks; never places orders during trading hours; has an investment checklist before acting on a decision; has a group of like-minded people to discuss issues with; moved out of New York to run his fund, Aquamarine – whose returns look impressive. I’m not an investor but made a few notes about habits that seem very sensible.
One very interesting chapter is an early one in which he describes his first job at a cut-throat and unscrupulous New York investment bank, D.H.Blair. He had ignored warnings about its reputation on joining the bank as a ‘vice president’, but quickly found that the only way to survive in the Wall Street game was to play by the rules of the game, unpalatable as they are. It reinforced my view that the problem with so much of finance is not that there are some ‘bad apples’ but that it’s systemic – the structure of the barrel turns all the apples bad. So punishing some individuals, or working on bankers’ ethics, will make no difference at all.
Maybe it’s because he and I had the same intellectual formation, having been first taught economics by the wonderful and brilliant Peter Sinclair at Brasenose College, Oxford (albeit some years apart, as Guy is younger than me) that I find the philosophy behind The Education of a Value Investor so appealing. Guy & I met and became friends relatively recently, but a teacher who catches you at the right stage of your life is of course a uniquely powerful influence on your life. Interestingly, Guy questions his elite education, though, suggesting it was a good grounding for conventional, worldly success but taught the habits of reductionism and intellectual arrogance. However, in his case at least, a modest and wise man seems to have been forged by it.