One piece of business before launching into today's story. The New York Times reported today that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos. The report insinuates that Bezos may have filed to sell shares of Amazon because he knew that Lehman Brothers was about to release a negative report on Feb. 6. The SEC declined to say that it was investigating.
The Times tries to draw meaning from the fact that Bezos' sale constitutes a large percentage of the shares he's ever sold (800,000 of 1.3 million). One might note that an Amazon share doesn't fetch as much these days as it once did, so that you have to sell more to get the same amount of money. If, say, a guy had some taxes to pay, he might sell a few shares. And it is just a few shares -- 800,000 represents 0.7% of Bezos' holdings.
That's not to say there was no impropriety. Perhaps the SEC is investigating, perhaps it'll find something. But insider sells are complicated. I'd rather wait until the SEC finishes its investigation before drawing any conclusions. The Times story is possibly more hype than substance.
On to more pleasant musings...
I wish I were an expert in Greek mythology. The little I've read and learned of it has always been pretty interesting. And very inventive. (It makes me wonder what our own society might come up with if we didn't have television and talk radio. Not that I want to give up "The West Wing," "The Simpsons," or "The Sopranos"...)
I was thinking the other day of Sisyphus. You might remember him -- he's the poor fellow (a king, actually)who was punished by having to push a massive stone up a hill. The stone kept falling back down, and Sisyphus kept pushing it back up. (This may be one of history's first endless loops!) It occurred to me that there's a connection here to investing: Perhaps the ultimate Sisyphean investment is gold. According to Jeremy Siegel in his wonderful book Stocks for the Long Run, from 1802 to 1997, nearly 200 years, the value of gold hardly changed at all. If you started with $1 worth of gold in 1802, it would rise and fall in value over the years, but would end up in 1997 worth an inflation-adjusted $0.84. Ouch.
This made me wonder what lessons or parallels could be drawn from other mythological figures. I hopped onto Google.com, did a little digging, and emerged with some additional Greek food for thought.
Take Achilles. (For the few of you not familiar with him, he's the warrior who had been dipped into the waters of immortality by his mom, who held him by his heel. So his heel was his only vulnerable spot and it's what ultimately did him in.) Most of us probably have at least one Achilles' heel in our approaches to investing. And it only takes one to do in your portfolio's performance. With the Rule Breaker portfolio, many have reasonably argued that not having a clearly articulated sell strategy is an Achilles' heel. Makes sense to me. (Of course, that's probably one of my own Achilles' heels, as well.)
Consider the poor sailors of those mythic Greek days. There was danger at every turn. Charybdis was a monster amusing herself by creating an enormous whirlpool. Opposite her was Scylla, grabbing and devouring whoever she could. And then there were the Sirens, singing sweetly and luring sailors toward them, so that the ships would crash on the rocks. In the investing world, these could be dangers such as the hurly-burly action of daytraders or options flippers or the temptation to invest heavily on margin in a bull market. Perhaps our Siren songs are the whispered hot stock tips from friends at work, in magazine articles, or on stock discussion boards.
Odysseus and his wife Penelope offer investing lessons, too. The King of Ithaca, Odysseus spent ten years fighting a war and then ten years wandering around and experiencing various adventures before he returned home. Meanwhile, loyal and devoted Penelope waited 20 years for him, rebuffing the advances of suitors. These folks demonstrate the value of patience, of waiting, of persisting, and of knowing what you want. Penelope has a bit of Warren Buffett in her, knowing the kind of company she really wants and not settling for also-rans. Odysseus serves to remind us that it can take a bit of time for us to reach certain goals -- perhaps even 10 or 20 years. Like him, we're likely to encounter many investing adventures (both mishaps and coups) along the way to our promised land.
Ever hear of Palinurus? He was the helmsman of Odysseus' boat. His downfall was... falling down. He dozed off, fell overboard, and ended up sleeping with the fishes. This tells us that if we're not alert and regularly reviewing our holdings, we might lose control of things and end up in trouble. Perhaps Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) was close to sleep when eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) was snatching up Half.com for a song. I myself have pulled a Palinurus or two with some holdings in the past. I've spied some holdings falling in value, but didn't bother to look too closely to see what was going on. Other times, perhaps more often, I've sold out of a position too soon, not having been awake enough to see the company's true potential.
An even odder fellow was Procrustes (whose name alone is odd enough). He was a hospitable sort who'd welcome strangers and offer them a meal and a night's sleep in his one-size-fits-all bed. Unfortunately for his guests, he'd make them fit the bed exactly, either stretching them on a rack or trimming off some leg length. This presents another danger for investors. Sometimes we might have certain pig-headed assumptions or expectations about a company and thus try to make it fit our mental model by force. This isn't good for us. (It wasn't good for Procrustes, either. He ended up being served a taste of his own medicine.)
A particularly apt mythological figure for Rule Breakerdom is Icarus. Equipped with wings made of feathers and wax, he flew too near the sun and died when the heat loosened his feathers. This makes me imagine some people who may not be ready for Rule Breakers thinking they'll try investing in some. As we've said many times before, Rule Breakers are the riskiest of our strategies and not for beginners. ("Don't Mimic Us.") Once you've been around the investing block a few times and understand what Rule Breaker investing involves, then you're flying with well-built wings.
Finally, consider Hercules, who had to perform 12 labors to be freed from bondage. (Kill a lion, capture a boar, clean some stables, procure some apples....) Then consider the average American, who should review the 13 Steps to Investing Foolishly in order to break free from credit card debt or even just massive financial misconceptions. (Set expectations, learn about index funds, consider Drips, plan for retirement....)
That's it for my mythology lesson. I invite you to share any lessons you can draw from mythology -- on our Rule Breaker Strategy discussion board. Before I close, permit me to offer up a non-mythological nugget that MarkMarcellus offered on our boards. (Well, it does relate to Warren Buffett, an investor of nearly mythological proportions.) He said:
"[Regarding long-term buying and holding], I have not yet seen anyone improve upon this definition from Warren Buffett:
'Your goal as an investor should simply be to purchase, at a rational price, a part interest in an easily-understandable business whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher five, ten and twenty years from now. Over time, you will find only a few companies that meet these standards -- so when you see one that qualifies, you should buy a meaningful amount of stock. You must also resist the temptation to stray from your guidelines: If you aren't willing to own a stock for ten years, don't even think about owning it for ten minutes. Put together a portfolio of companies whose aggregate earnings march upward over the years, and so also will the portfolio's market value.'"
At Selena Maranjian's potluck parties, guests have had to have pizza delivered. Selena owns shares of Amazon.com, eBay, and Berkshire Hathaway. To see her complete stock holdings, view her profile. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.