Don't Invest Like a Banker

How does a banker describe the way he manages his assets? "Conservative.""Low-risk." "Guaranteed returns." That's a wonderfully profitable way for most to invest. But it also all but guarantees you'll miss the best money-making opportunities when they come along. Fool contributor Tim Beyers learns why in part 1 of his interview with Fool co-founder and Motley Fool Rule Breakers chief David Gardner.

Tim Beyers: Let's start with the most obvious question, David. What the heck do you have against bankers, anyway?

David Gardner: Nothing at all. Heck, I know plenty of bankers. Well, OK, I really don't. But my point is that I don't begrudge them success. I just don't think their investing approach is as profitable as it could be. You see, bankers eschew risk. They need constant assurance from whomever they "invest in" -- you know, those who they loan money to -- that they will get their money back, with interest. They put safety over returns. I don't.

Tim Beyers: Why? Nobody wants to lose money.

David Gardner: Of course not. But I want to make money. Lots of it. And that means taking risks. Each of us has to define what level of risk best suits us, of course. But, personally, I don't see the point in investing if you aren't going to go for the highest possible returns. That's where I part ways with bankers. They've neither the imagination nor the stomach for such swashbuckling adventure.

Tim Beyers: Oh, come on. Are you telling me that you're the Errol Flynn of the investing world?

David Gardner:Tally ho! [Winks.]

No, of course not. If you are intellectually curious, you should think of investing as an adventure. That's not what bankers do. They're at their best when they can borrow money at, say, 3% and lend it at 6%. Mix in enough loans at that 3% spread and you're talking about serious moolah. Yet how many of us have hundreds of millions of dollars lying around to lend to our friends at 6%? I don't. Do you?

Tim Beyers: Um, no.

David Gardner: Exactly! Bankers play not to lose because they can. They're already making a killing -- those rich, rapscallion dogs. The rest of us -- you know, those of us not burning $100 bills to light cigars -- have to seek higher returns from our investments. Here at The Motley Fool, we think stocks are the way to go, naturally.

Tim Beyers: Sure, but shouldn't every investor seek to manage risk? I mean, isn't it good that bankers eschew risk?

David Gardner: To a degree, yes. But there are two different kinds of risk. Remember: bankers don't need to know that much. They review forms filled out by clients seeking loans, who then list assets or collateral against that loan. It's not a job that requires a high degree of intellectual curiosity, because intellectual curiosity doesn't figure into the process. In fact, early on in the corporate history of The Motley Fool, though our private market valuation was sizable, we had a really hard time getting a short-term loan to buy new office equipment. I had to sign over a personal assurance to a banker who didn't otherwise trust "Internet businesses." That's because we had few tangible assets that could be repossessed if we failed. It's no different today. Bankers still look at "e-businesses" -- those built, among other things, on human capital, community, and brand -- the same way that tigers look at chessboards. Whatever.

Conversely, the investor -- at least my kind of investor -- manages risk by understanding the market, competitive advantage, and the opportunities for a stock they're interested in. And then they arrive at an appropriate price to get a cut of future profits. It's the difference between trying to guarantee a return and placing an educated bet that could really pay off.

Tim Beyers: Aren't you really saying that bankers know the maximum they stand to lose? That seems smart to me. Heck, I wish I'd known what I stood to lose when betting on Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) shortly after CEO Jeff Bezos was named Time's Man of the Year in 1999.

David Gardner: Yes, I am. I'm also saying that bankers will never earn the same returns you or I can as investors because they won't take the time or energy required to study businesses. They won't go beyond the numbers. Yet Rule Breakers do. These are the people who funded Palm (Nasdaq: PALM  ) because they saw a profitable future for personal digital assistants, Vertex Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: VRTX  ) because they imagined that creating unique molecules would have far-reaching effects in treating disease, and Blue Nile (Nasdaq: NILE  ) because they believed diamonds could be sold over the Web. Each of these investors -- and many more like them -- has reaped billions in returns. I want to be in their company.

Stay tuned for part 2 on Monday!

David Gardner is co-founder of The Motley Fool and the chief advisor ofMotley Fool Rule Breakers. He and his Foolish band of analysts are beating the market by 9 percentage points as of this writing. Get in on the action by taking a risk-free 30-day trial today.

Fool contributorTim Beyershas nothing against bankers. He just won't let them anywhere near his portfolio. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which ishere. Vertex and Blue Nile are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Amazon.com and Palm are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Motley Fool has an ironcladdisclosure policy.


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