One of my favorite stories in this regard involves Ken Heebner’s CGM Focus Fund. It was the best U.S. stock fund of the decade ending in 2009. The Focus Fund earned 18 percent a year for its investors, beating its nearest rival by more than three percentage points. Yet according to research by Morningstar, the typical investor in the fund lost 11 percent annually.
How? Investors tended to take money out after a bad stretch and put it back in after a strong run. They sold low and bought high. Incredibly, these people found the best fund you could own over that decade and still managed to lose money.
This is all too common. Investors are bad at timing their buys and sells. People get emotional. They chase hot stocks. They can’t wait to grab gains. They’re impatient and too focused on short-term results.
Also, most people trade way too much. All that activity smothers their returns. Brad Barber and Terrance Odean showed this in a famous 2000 paper titled “Trading is Hazardous to Your Wealth.” Their conclusion: “Individual investors who hold common stocks directly pay a tremendous performance penalty for active trading.”
All this trading incurs costs. You pay commissions, which are often slight but can still add up. You pay bid-ask spreads. You pay taxes. (Although you can shield this liability in a tax-free account.) You pay fees if you invest in any mutual fund. These fees go a long way toward explaining why most mutual funds have trouble beating an index like the S&P 500.
In short, the way most people invest is the exact opposite of what you should do. As Jerry Seinfeld told George Costanza: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”
Which brings us to the coffee can portfolio.
A money manager named Robert Kirby came up with the idea in 1984. He wrote about it in an essay for the Journal of Portfolio management. In it, he tells the story of how he managed the portfolio of one client for about 10 years, and then her husband died.
She inherited his estate and told Kirby she would add his portfolio to her own. Kirby saw the list of stocks in the husband’s portfolio and wrote, “I was amused to find that he had secretly been piggy-backing on our recommendations for his wife’s portfolio.”
But then he saw something that shocked him. The husband had followed Kirby’s advice – with a twist. “He paid no attention whatsoever to the sell recommendations,” Kirby wrote. “He simply put about $5,000 in every purchase recommendation. Then he would toss the certificate in his safe-deposit box and forget it.”
Well, the results were quite interesting. The husband had a number of small stocks worth less than $2,000. But he also had several worth more than $100,000. And he had one holding worth more $800,000. This one holding alone exceeded the value of his wife’s entire portfolio. It was humbling for Kirby, as you might well imagine.
Hence, the idea of the coffee can portfolio. The strategy simply amounts to buying stocks and socking them away in a proverbial coffee can for 10 years. Kirby explains that the idea harkens to the Old West, when people used to put their valuables in a coffee can and hide it somewhere.
The success of this portfolio depends entirely on what you initially put it in. This reduces the investment problem down to its core. What should you buy knowing you can’t sell it for 10 years? My hunch is with a little reading and thinking almost anyone can come up with a promising list of five to 10 stocks.
Make sure you own a variety. If you pick just five, make sure they aren’t all oil stocks, for example. You also want to avoid faddish stocks or things that look like they might not be around in a decade.
It’s not easy. But it removes a lot of the obstacles that prevent people from doing well. There are no transaction costs after you set one up. There are no capital gains taxes to pay. There are no investment advisers to pay, either. (Thus it will never be popular with investment professionals). There is no trading, no fiddling around trying to buy low and sell high. You simply decide what goes in the coffee can today and then you go on about your life. Open in 10 years and see what you have.
Mayer is founder and editor of Capital & Crisis, a value investment newsletter. He’s the author of “World Right Side Up: Investing Across Six Continents.”