How often do you mow your lawn?
No, not the grass -- though that was the specific subject of this excellent recent posting from dswing on our discussion boards at Fool.com. (Anyone who has a lawn and spends anything like an hour a week or more thinking about it or mowing it should read that post!) Our subject here is investing. So I'm talking about the lawn of your portfolio. How often do you mow it? And have you set yourself up to have to mow it too often?
dswing's posting points out a basic problem in the way most lawn owners handle their grass. They cut it really short because they think a tight cut means LONGER amounts of time in between cuttings. So... less work. That's the thought, anyway, and to most people it sounds good. You'll "do better" this way.
Instead (and keep in mind this is a generalization that doesn't apply to all types of grass in all climates and conditions), the truth is quite the opposite. The less you cut your grass, the higher you set your mower (three inches), the stronger your grass becomes, the less it needs to be watered, the less it needs to be cut, the more it drives out weeds, etc. The less work you do, the better you do.
And so I ask you: Are you a high-cut or low-cut investor? Because the analogy here between lawn care and investing is pretty cogent. Low-cut (lots-of-cut) mowers and low-cut investors -- "traders" -- think that if you act a lot, you do better. The truth is, rather, that if you act a lot, you do NOT necessarily improve the result, and in most cases you'll do worse. The only thing that can be uncategorically stated about low-cut lawn mowing and daytrading is that if you act a lot, you will, er, act a lot.
And I don't think the history of the stock market, and perhaps in particular the present environment, justifies your spending a whole lot of time this way. Today's extremely volatile market environment looks more irrational to me than ever before, and reconfirms my resolve to follow BUSINESSES, not stock market PRICE WIGGLES.
eBay's (Nasdaq: EBAY) moves the past two days may serve as a poster child in this regard, volatility in a year of volatility.
Yesterday, eBay rose 15% (in a down market). Why? Appears to be a combination of "eBay Anywhere" wireless deals (Oracle and Sprint PCS) along with Meg Whitman telling Wall Street (and The Wall Street Journal) that her company's opportunities for growth looked "endless." Today, with a snap of the finger, yesterday's $18 gain disappeared in a $20 decline. I'm not sure we can point to any neat and obvious reason why this occurred today, just as it's probably too reductionistic to explain yesterday's gain with a couple of news announcements.
Still, my main point is that 15% moves either way are extremely significant, most of the time. But we're seeing top-tier "new economy" company stocks buzzing around like hummingbirds, lately. Hummingbirds with hefty market caps.
I have said before and I will say again that eBay is one of my Rip Fool Winkle stocks. I can fall asleep, as I said on CNN's In the Money earlier today, and 25 years from now wake up and feel comfortable that my portfolio as it presently stands will have made me money. eBay offers a combination of the most dependable and "open situation" growth prospects of any stock in the portfolio. Watching it hum around so much isn't worth watching, just as the fascinating hummingbird only holds our attention for... what... one constant hour of observation? The novelty wears off, and the value of our time takes over and we divert our attention to more meaningful places. That's largely the way I feel about the stock market.
In reaction to the lawn care posting, CESamples wrote, "I just wanted to say that I agree with your lawn theory wholeheartedly. I've tried again and again to get my husband to set the lawn mower blades higher and to mow only once a month. He thinks the shorter he cuts the grass, the longer he can go between mowing. It hasn't dawned on him yet that the reason he has to mow every week is because he's causing the grass to grow faster by hacking it." This same misspent attention characterizes the way some of us today may be treating our stock portfolios.
Remember, the lawn care industry has a vested interest in getting you to think more about your lawn -- specifically, about needing to care for your lawn, about needing to take action regarding your lawn, to TRANSACT for your lawn.
Similarly, numerous financial services and media companies have a vested interest in getting you to think just the same way about your investment portfolio -- needing to care for it, needing to take action on it, needing you to transact. Too many investors allow their attention spans, their focus, to be undermined by this relentless and unproductive focus on "what just happened."
For most long-term investors, "what just happened" is NOT intimately linked with "what is the direct impact on me and how should I react." The answer is, simply, that we do NOT need to react, in most cases, to whatever has just happened... even if the news media leads with stories in such a way as to suggest we do need to react, or should. We do not need to react to our portfolio dropping more than 6% in a given day (as did ours today)... just as we do NOT need to react, in most cases, to whatever the latest is with Elian. (Yawn!) Or... the O.J. case (a classic example of the media training its focus and ours on a story that was hugely irrelevant to the day-to-day life of you and me). So too, if I may be so bold (there is no political baggage here), as regards Monica Lewinsky. I know, I know, it was our president and it was a huge story, a watershed, etc. but how much did this really matter to you and to me? What was the relevance-to-attention given ratio for the average person? I submit that this ratio, with personal relevance as the numerator and public attention stirred up as the denominator, was one of the lowest such ratios ever recorded.
There is not an "efficient market" among the media that matches attention given to practical relevance. Big media stories and their real, bottom-line relevance to you and to me are notoriously decoupled. Meanwhile, truly consequential news stories like the fact that violent crime in the U.S. has declined eight years in a row get little play, and not enough attention (and education) is given to biotechnology -- perhaps the most consequential and critical technology ever invented, and it's happening before our eyes.
But, hey, let's get to the real stuff: Who was a millionaire on TV last night? Did he win?
I'm not decrying pop culture. What I am trying to do is improve your own relevance-to-attention given ratio, as regards your money. That translates into better use of your time -- your most precious resource.
Before I close, I must mention OUR OWN vested interest, at The Motley Fool. After all, if I mention those of others, I must mention our own.
We have a vested interest in your returning to use Fool.com for increasing amounts of your needs into the foreseeable future. I would love for you to find something about The Motley Fool to bring you back each day, if this isn't already the case. And if it is, I'd like to find ways to improve your experience here. The only way we can achieve these things -- that we can satisfy our vested interest -- is to listen, to anticipate your needs, and to build services and offerings and great new opportunities to add sufficient value to your life to make us compelling.
That does NOT involve "hot stock picks." It does involve a careful and constant evaluation of what is relevant to YOU, and how we can make ourselves more relevant and more helpful to you in this regard, whether it's getting out of debt, buying a home, starting your stock portfolio, or publishing your ideas for mutual reward (yours and your readers) via our coming summer debut of Soapbox.com.
Anyway, to close, one of our most popular and closely followed discussion boards is Improve the Fool. We try to listen like few companies in the world. And we hope to get better. Help us out, by speaking.
Whether eBay is up 15% or down 15%, and whatever you think of lawn care, Fool on!
David Gardner, May 23, 2000
How often do you mow your lawn?
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