Let’s imagine for the moment that you are the World’s Greatest Stock Picker. You have an uncanny talent for ferreting out “the next Microsoft” — companies that are on the sharpest edge of what’s next, that are about to undergo tremendous growth. These firms will rule the world: They will be the most powerful, profitable and influential corporate entities known to man.
Even better, your superpower is that you can find these companies when they are tiny, before they have had their explosive growth, when hardly anyone has heard of them. You find and buy these stocks while their prices are still in the single digits. Companies like Apple, Google, Tesla, Netflix and Chipotle that will one day measure their growth in increments of thousands of a percent.
Can you imagine how much wealth you could create?
I have some bad news for you, kiddos: Even if you had that superpower, it would be worth surprisingly little to you. The odds are that it would not create much wealth, and it might even cost you money.
How could that be possible?
The short answer is your brain. The three-pound ball of gray matter sitting atop your spinal cord was never designed to make risk/reward decisions in capital markets. It took about 100,000 years to optimize for its intended purpose: Keeping you alive.
The occasional Darwin Award aside, it does an outstanding job of keeping you safe from all manner of predators on the savanna. That you now live in a condo and enjoy lattes is irrelevant to its functionality. Its job remains keeping you alive long enough for you to procreate, pass your genes along and perpetuate the species.
This dynamic, opportunistic, self-organizing system of systems occasionally runs into trouble when we try to force it to perform other, “off-label” uses. That includes buying and selling pieces of paper that represent tiny slices of companies. As we shall see, that big, under-utilized brain of yours is no help anytime it gets over-stimulated by your emotions.
Which is precisely why being the World’s Greatest Stock Picker is unlikely to be how any of you is going to get rich. Let’s use the shares of five companies as examples: Google, Tesla, Chipotle, Netflix and Apple.
The performance of each since its initial public stock offering has been nothing short of astounding. Since going public, each stock has generated returns of more than 1,000 percent. A $10,000 IPO allocation in any one is now worth at least $100,000.
To give you an idea of just how phenomenal these companies have done, Google is the laggard of the lot. Since its IPO in August 2004, it has gained a mere 1,282 percent. Tesla edged out the boys from Mountain View, Calif., with a gain of 1,352 percent. And they did it in less than four years — Tesla’s IPO was June 2010 — vs. the decade it took Google to gain 1,000 percent.
Those spectacular returns look downright paltry compared with the 2,865 percent gain Chipotle has had since going public in 2006. And Netflix beats that, rising 5,816 percent since 2002.
Then there is Apple. It is a beast unto itself, racking up a mind-boggling 22,288 percent in appreciation since its 1980 debut. It has become world’s biggest company by market capitalization.
Even if you bought large chunks of each of these firms at their IPOs, the odds are that nearly all of these giant gains would have eluded you. Why? As I shall show you, each of these companies would have sent you running for the exits — repeatedly — over the years, screaming as if your hair were on fire.
Don’t believe me? Consider the facts:
• Netflix has lost 25 percent of its value on four separate days. Not over four days; on separate occasions, it lost 25 percent in a single day. In one four-month stretch in 2011, it lost 80 percent of its value. On Netflix’s worst day, it fell 41 percent.
• Chipotle has lost 15 percent in a single day on four occasions. During the 2007-2009 crash, it lost 76 percent of its value — about 50 percent worse than the market overall.
• Tesla went up 400 percent in 6 months, then lost 40 percent over the next 10 weeks. In one month, it lost about 25 percent of its value.
• Google lost nearly 70 percent in the Great Recession. During its worst quarter, its stock price fell more than 36 percent.
• Apple has lost 25 percent or more six times in the past 10 years alone. That was after its meteoric rise. During its worst week, it was cut in half, falling 51 percent. It saw similar damage during its worst month and quarter as well — getting cut in half in each time period.
How often have you invested in a stock, only to get scared out of it when things grew shaky? That’s fairly typical behavior for investors.
Now imagine how you would have behaved if you happened to have a significant part of your net worth tied up in that one holding.
Let’s say a decade ago, you put $15,000 into Apple. You bought 1,000 shares at $15 (with $13 cash) because you thought that newfangled iPod had some potential. Since then, it split two for one and then earlier this year, it split seven for one. You now are holding 14,000 shares of Apple. At the current price of about $100, it is worth $1.4 million dollars. For most people, this is a very high percentage of their net worth. How well do you sleep when 90 percent of your total net worth goes through giant swings?
Apple was worth about the same amount in September 2012 — just before it gave back almost half its value, falling 44 percent. Would you have held on? What about all of those prior 50 percent corrections?
This is not an academic theory. Consider how you have reacted to much more modest drops in your holdings. How often were you shaken out of a stock, only to see it rocket higher after you sold? And somebody was dumping stocks in March 2009; after all, selling climaxes (also known as capitulation) are how bottoms are made.
Some years ago, I recommended to the brokers I worked with to do just that regarding Apple. They bought millions of shares at an average price of $15. At $20 dollars, they were selling it, whooping it up and high-fiving one another. When I asked why they were selling it when my price target was higher ($30!), I was told: “It’s a 33 percent winner — time to ring the bell, Ritholtz!” That was even before any trouble had hit.
How many of you, dear readers, could hold onto a giant winner like these five for the duration? How do you know that any of these are not about to turn into a classic disaster stock? Think about once-giant winners that collapsed: Lehman Brothers, WorldCom, Lucent, JDS Uniphase.
All of these were one-time market heroes; all went bust in spectacular fashion. Your superpower gives you the ability to find the giant winners, but it does not give you the ability to hold onto them, nor does it give you the ability to distinguish between the superstars and the washouts.
As we have discussed previously, this is a feature, not a bug. The good news is your brain has kept you alive long enough to read this column. The bad news, it also made you sell Apple 10,000 percent ago.
The reality is, when it comes to risk/reward decisions, you are just not built for it.
Ritholtz is chief executive of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture. On Twitter: @Ritholtz.