Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review: A Wealth of Common Sense

Ben Carlson is an investment writer who consistently has something important to say and expresses it in an engaging way.  Each morning I eagerly await his new post in my email, and he is one of the financial writers that I follow most closely on Twitter. I am in awe at the volume and quality of his writing.

Ben is Director of Institutional Asset Management at Ritholtz Wealth Management.  He has authored both the book reviewed here, A Wealth of Common Sense: Why Simplicity Trumps Complexity in Any Investment Plan, and also Organizational Alpha: How to Add Value in Institutional Asset Management. Ben Carlson has been recognized in numerous awards, including being chosen in 2017 for Investment News 40 Under 40. You can read more about his background on his website.

Ben Carlson and Michael Batnick, also of Ritholz Wealth Management, have a weekly podcast that goes by the unusual title Animal Spirits.  The style of the podcast is very different from that of this book, and from his daily investment posts.  I may review the podcast at some future date. I suspect many came to Ben Carlson's considerable social presence after reading one of his books, but for me it was the opposite: I first started reading his blog and twitter posts. I decided it was finally time to seek out his best known book and to do a review on it.

Sometimes books have clever titles and sometimes they use descriptive titles.  This title is both. Essentially the book emphasizes the point that a clear investment plan, patience over the long term, and sound investment choices will yield good long term returns.  Success is largely dependent on making good common sense choices, and reigning in our emotions.

Essential Ideas

In the introduction to the book he summarizes simple and effective investment advice in the following points.
  • Think and act for the long term.
  • Ignore the noise.
  • Buy low, sell high.
  • Keep your emotions in check.
  • Don't put all of your eggs in one basket.
  • Stay the course.
As he emphasizes, the challenge is not so much to know those points, essentially common sense, but rather how to follow them.

In clear engaging language he outlines some of the traits listed below that you must reign in.  Here are the key messages, but read the book to get the details.
  1. Looking to get rich in a hurry.
  2. Not having a plan in place.
  3. Going with the herd, instead of thinking for yourself.
  4. Focusing exclusively on the short term.
  5. Focusing only on those areas that are completely out of your control.
  6. Taking the markets personally.
  7. Not admitting your limitations.
He goes on to provide the flip side - what are the traits of a successful investor?
  1. Emotional intelligence.
  2. Patience.
  3. Calm during times of stress.
  4. The ability to say 'I don't know.'
  5. Understand history.
  6. Discipline.

What I Like

Ben Carlson devotes considerable attention to dealing with our emotional sides. As he says in the chapter on contrasting individual and institutional investors.
"One of the biggest mistakes investors make is letting their emotions get in the way of making intelligent investment decisions."
The following chapter is entirely devoted to the traits required to be a successful investor. That chapter opens with this great quote from Charlie Munger:
"If you can get good at destroying your own wrong ideas, that is a great gift."
-Charlie Munger
By clearly laying out the key traits of unsuccessful and successful investors, the author has set a superb foundation, with much of the book weaving the details around those points and the evidence for them.  I find that this approach works really well.

Ben Carlson appropriately stresses that in order to get more reward, indeed to get enough reward to overcome inflation, you need to take on some risk. I like the emphasis he places on market history as part of your investment education. That historical emphasis is also one of the Four Pillars of Investing of Dr. William J. Bernstein (see my review of that book here). Chapter 4 of A Wealth of Common Sense on market myths and history is one of my favourites. Many of these deal with timing attempts (read the book!), but I will share his fifth myth, which I think is something important that simplistic advice often overlooks: Myth 5 Stocks and bonds always move in different directions (see also Myth 7 which deals with risk inherent in stocks and bonds).

A Wealth of Common Sense is more scholarly (in a good way!) than many investment books.  Each chapter has an extensive list of resources to support the points made, ranging over books, articles and websites.  The author clearly reads widely and with an open mind, and that shines through in almost every page of this book.

In a book that pays attention to the evidence supporting ideas presented, sometimes it is easy to loose track of the key ideas.  Ben Carlson guards agains this by including for each chapter a Key Takeaways section, a few bulleted points that emphasize the key ideas of the chapter.

As would be expected,  Ben Carlson stresses the importance of development of an informed financial and investment plan.  A part of this is defining yourself as an investor (Chapter 5 has a section with this heading). As he says "...there is never going to be a one-size-fits-all investment philosophy for every person." He suggests that asking yourself questions such as does your investment philosophy match your personality and individual circumstances, and what constraints do the conditions of your life place on that philosophy.

The book contains many superb pithy quotations, such as the following in a section on The Benefits of Doing Nothing.
"Lethargy, bordering on sloth, should remain the cornerstone of an investment style."
–Warren Buffett
I find that the book concludes strongly, with the Exhibit approach in Chapter 6, including gems like the mutual fund graveyard and picking one active fund is hard, followed by Chapter 7 on asset allocation, and then Chapter 8 on a comprehensive investment plan.  Chapter 7 provides a solid foundation in evidence, history and principles guiding an appropriate asset allocation for your own personal situation. Chapter 8 includes coverage of lifecycle investing, and the different situations for investors at different stages in life.

The penultimate chapter looks at the key question of if you should seek professional advice, and how to interact with your financial advisor. His key takeaways for this chapter include advice such as "look for self-awareness and humility, not certainty or guarantees" and "outsourcing to a financial advisor is intelligent behaviour if you don't have the time, expertise, or emotional control to implement an ongoing financial plan."

The book provides good balance, with sage advice such as the following:
"Your investment plan should be designed specifically... for you – build the one you know you will follow. You have to be brutally honest with yourself about your ability to handle risk."

A Few Reservations

This is not so much a reservation as a caveat that this is not a simplistic 'how to' investment book.  Don't expect it to lead you into precisely what you should do with your investment portfolio. But perhaps that reservation is really a strength – as investors we need to educate ourselves and develop personally appropriate financial and investment plans. While he does not guide you in precise financial products, the author (in  Chapter 5) does offer a checklist of the traits of a good fund (applicable to both mutual funds and exchange traded funds). He suggests that you should seek low cost, rules-based and transparent, evidence supported, liquid investments.

While I liked a lot of the structure of the book, for me at least, I found that Chapter 1, The Individual Investor versus the Institutional Investor, was not the most engaging way to start the text.  I would have started with either Chapter 2, on the traits of successful investors, or possibly with the content of Chapter 3 on long term performance and the link of risk and return.

For Canadians, this book is of course written from a U. S. perspective.  Nevertheless, the vast majority of the points made are applicable in different countries and economies. I will be reviewing a few Canadian authored investment books in the coming weeks.

Concluding Thoughts

How is investing like walking into a restaurant? Read the beginning of Chapter 6 to find out! Along the way you will learn some valuable insights about the investment industry.

Most good books are common sense, and this is no exception. The book is full of concisely presented evidence as well though.  For example, in the decade ending in 2013 there were a total of 6911 mutual funds opened, but over the same period 3066 funds were merged, and 3105 were liquidated. Survivorship bias is indeed a thing.

A message that I fear many investors will need to keep in mind during the coming decade is the following:
"The only true guarantee we have in the markets is that things will go wrong and people's perception of risk will be in a constant state of change. Risk is actually more predictable than returns."
At the outset of the Conclusion chapter he mentions that someone offered him the following advice as he was writing the book to imagine that his grandmother came to him for investment advice, asking for 10 things that she could understand and that were important.  Maybe that explains a lot of why this book is as good as it is! You will need to get the book to see the full list, but number one is "Less is more" and the second is "Focus on what you can control."

The investing great Warren Buffett once said:
"Hang out with people better than you, and you cannot help but improve.'
–Warren Buffett
I strongly encourage you to 'hang out' with Ben Carlson through reading this book! Ben Carlson has 'hung out' with a lot of investment giants, and this book is our shortcut to reaping some of the benefits of that. And since more hanging out with good people is always a good idea, the book ends with a book list of great choices to move onto after this book.

The 224 page book, published in 2015 by Bloomberg/Wiley, is widely available through bookstores and libraries, or can be purchased through Amazon. It comes in hardcover (ISBN 978-1119024927), softcover and Kindle eBook formats.

Downtown Josh Brown, of The Reformed Broker fame, praises the book and Ben Carlson through these words:
"True investing wisdom—born out of experience and success—cannot be faked; it must be earned. This is precisely the type of wisdom that comes oozing out of every chapter in A Wealth Of Common Sense." 
I totally agree. This book would be in my top 5 investment books for an individual investor. Why not make it part of your summer personal finance and investment reading list?

This posting is intended for education only and should not be considered investment advice. The reader is responsible for their own financial decisions.  The writer is not a professional financial planner or investment advisor. For major financial decisions it is always wise to consult skilled professionals. While an effort has been made to be accurate, any statements of fact should be independently checked if important to the reader.

Disclosure:  No compensation by any company, organization or individual has been offered, requested or received for writing this column. We do however belong to affiliate programs for some of the links that you find in our articles, details available upon request.

Books for Review: I will not promise a positive, or even any, review, but if you wish to submit your investment book for me to consider, contact me rhawkes (at) I am particularly interested in Canadian books.

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