In their book The Index Card (Portfolio, 2016), financial journalist Helaine Olen and public policy professor Harold Pollack set out to dispel the myth that personal finance has to be complicated. Everything you need to know about money management can fit on a 4-by-6-inch index card. In the following edited excerpt, Olen and Pollack explain why one of the most celebrated businessmen actually isn't a personal finance inspiration.
We all like to think that given enough time and discipline, we can all become Warren Buffett. You know who Warren Buffett is, right? He's the legendary stock picker who is widely considered one of the most astute sages of investing in our lifetime. Known for his pithy, folksy wisdom--"Never ask a barber if you need a haircut"; " When the tide goes out, you discover who's been swimming naked"--he's considered the ultimate stock guru by people who often forget to mention that not only is he an excellent stock picker but he also benefits from getting access to deals not available to mere run-of-the-mill investors like, well, the rest of us.
Many individual investors believe that they have the potential to be Warren Buffett. When people experience this delusion, we like to refer them to the work of the behavioral finance stars Brad Barber and Terrance Odean at the University of California. No, they aren't household names, which is too bad. They have not written bestselling books of investment advice. Instead, they have devoted their careers to demonstrating the folly of the individual investor.
Their papers demonstrate--over and over again--that when it comes to making investment decisions, if we are guaranteed to do one thing, it's to make the wrong call. We believe we are out in front of trends when, in fact, we are chasing them. We buy when the market is going up and sell when it is going down, which is a great way of locking in losses and making less money over time. We panic. The stocks we buy perform notably worse than the stocks we sell. We have, as Helaine frequently notes, a black thumb when it comes to stock picking and investing.
Don't get us wrong. People do hit the occasional home run. Yet studies suggest that less than 1 percent of us have the ability to consistently and regularly beat the Street.
Instead of trying to beat the Street, we would all be better off just trying to keep up with it. We'll talk in the next chapter about the way to achieve this. For right now, know this: Not only will individual stock picking not lead you to beat the market, but it will likely leave you behind--possibly way behind.
"But, but, but?" we hear you asking. Why would brokerage houses sponsor classes in learning about active trading and options? If it's not in my best interests, why would they claim they can teach me how to do it?
Well, they have an incentive to get you to act in ways that are not in your best financial interest. Hundreds of millions of them, in fact. When you trade or make bets on the market via their platforms, they make money by charging you for each and every trade. Whether you win or lose is irrelevant. You still need to pay to play.
By the way, Warren Buffett doesn't want his own heirs to invest like Warren Buffett. He probably knows that he can get special terms because he is Warren Buffett.