Do You Have an Investment Advantage?

“If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.” – Jack Welch

To become wealthy, you need some kind of investing advantage. Otherwise, studies show, you will probably become poorer.

As a business consultant to the financial publishing industry, I am on a first-name basis with some of the best investment experts in the world. You might think that gives me a big advantage over you. After all, I can reach these hotshots on their cellphones or corner them at company events. But they aren’t allowed to give me personal advice – and the advice they are allowed to give to me is the same advice they give to the readers of their e-zines. If I want to know what they are thinking, I can read their articles.

That said, I have enjoyed several distinct advantages that I have used to increase my wealth. They have given me a much-better-than-average return on the time and money I’ve been investing for the past 10 or 15 years – and I am happy to share five of them with you.

1. I have learned to be humble about my investment skills. (Thirty years of making mistakes and surviving them will do that to you, if you are the least bit sensitive to failure.)

I know how hard it is to predict the success of a person or of a company. There are so many factors involved in success, intangible factors that can’t be tracked by company reports or measured mathematically. Whenever I make an investment in anything – be it a natural resource like gold, or real estate, or a company (either in debt or equity), I begin with the premise that I might be wrong. If the positive results I expect are replaced by strongly negative ones, I get out as fast and as painlessly as I can.

Setting a mental or actual stop-loss point before investing gives me a big advantage over know-it-alls and wishful thinkers. Every marketplace is filled with know-it-alls and wishful thinkers. It is not difficult to outperform them.

2. My second advantage comes from the same source: the humility of past failures.

I use a sliding-scale version of Pareto’s Law to allocate my resources. As an ETR reader, you know that Pareto was a French-Italian economist and the inspiration for Pareto’s Principle, which states that 80 percent of the effects of all kinds of things come from 20 percent of the causes. The investment application of this principle would suggest that I should put most (80 percent) of my resources (money and time) into what I know best. And what I know best is how to start and grow small businesses.

I haven’t started any new businesses since I semi-retired at age 50. But the consulting I do now is based on this formula. Most of the clients I take on are in the information-publishing business, since that’s the business I know best. Next to that, I’ve had the most experience in real estate. So the largest part of my investment portfolio is invested in property.

If you looked at how I spend my time and money from this perspective, you would see an allocation of resources that roughly matches my experience. Half is invested in small business and another 30 percent in real estate. Of the 20 percent that remains, it is pretty evenly divided among stocks, bonds, and precious metals.

You can have the same advantage. Give the greatest weight to what you know best, and be stingy about putting your time and money into what you don’t know.

3. My third advantage is a derivative of this same humility: When it comes time to invest in stocks and bonds and precious metals, I invest conservatively and for the long term.

I have learned from my business and real estate experiences that I can’t control outside market forces. I can’t control, for example, the rate of inflation or the falling dollar or what the Fed is doing about interest rates. What I can do is make the assumption that every market will go up and down in the short term. But over the long term – at least seven years (a typical business cycle) – the trend will be positive.

So when I invest in the areas I know the least about, I am a long-term, “value” investor. I buy into things that have a long-term performance history, and I do it when they are at below-market prices.

You can put this advantage to work for you if you, too, practice value-oriented, long-term investing.

4. My fourth advantage is not the result of my failures but of my successes.

I have learned that if I persist in sticking with my first three advantages – and not abandoning them when temporary circumstances go against me – I will once again succeed. When a good investment goes wrong or a good idea fails, I don’t jump to the conclusion that I should move away from what I know and jump into something I don’t know just because it seems hot for the moment. As a result, I have avoided a lot of big mistakes.

Investor studies bear this out. It doesn’t matter, they suggest, what particular sector you invest in or what particular system of investing you choose, so long as you hold true to the course. The market will eventually correct itself and take care of you. You have to trust it.

5. My fifth advantage is by far the most important.

I learned this about 30 years ago when I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world. At the time, I was living in a small, three-room, plaster-coated mud house in the middle of N’Djamena, the capital city. The kitchen was a little brick hut in the garden. The bathroom was a toilet and cold-water shower in an outside shack. I was very happy living in that house with K, among friends and colleagues who (like me) were making just enough money to live on.

I remember sitting on the porch on a rainy day, watching our dog bark at a monkey in a tree and thinking, “No matter how much wealth you eventually acquire, you will never be happier than you are right now.” I have kept this thought in my head all this time, and it has helped me enormously over the years. Especially when I suffered business and investment failures or was troubled by the threat of a loss in any way.

The things that are most valuable in life cost very little. If I have my health, I can be happy with whatever happens to my wealth. I can work. I can suffer losses. I can begin again.

Like my other four advantages, this one is available to you completely and immediately. Just take a few minutes, once a day to think about it, and the mental wealth it will bring you will multiply over time.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]