In this segment from the Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner sifts through his listeners' questions and comments to pick subjects to dive into for your elucidation and entertainment. He gets a helping hand from the virtual North: analyst David Kretzmann of Motley Fool Canada. Their topic: A note from an investor who turned his losing portfolio into a winning one by taking the lessons of capital-F Foolishness to heart. The problem is that he recently had a particularly good month thanks to some investing moves that he's worried might have been more lowercase-f foolish. He's right, and there are some key lessons to be learned from his unfortunate success.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on March 28, 2018.
David Gardner: This is a little bit of a longer read, here. This is kind of a storytelling moment. It comes from Isaac Melin. Isaac's a 24-year-old, first-year med student from Plymouth, Minnesota.
He said he'd like to introduce himself by telling us his investing story and how we've impacted it so much. He begins, "I started investing on June 4, 2015." I always love it when people actually name the date.
David Kretzmann: That's awesome!
Gardner: Like I don't know what day I started investing, but I'm so glad that Isaac did on June 4, 2015, through Robinhood. "I knew nothing about investing but wanted to put my money somewhere other than my savings account." Check.
"I went about choosing companies like this. I searched online. 'Top Five Stocks to Buy Under Five Dollars.'" This already sounds like an earlier mailbag item. He only used articles written in the last two weeks, he went on to say, and would cross reference various organizations' recommendations, looking for companies that showed up multiple times.
And this is totally understandable. You're using Google to try to figure out how am I going to get started investing. What am I going to do when I have no background? But you have the right instinct. We can do better than our savings account. He goes on from there.
"Most of the companies were early stage biotech or pharmaceutical companies. I bought and sold stocks on a weekly basis, trying to time the mountains and valleys. Looking back on some of those companies now, they actually beat the market over two-and-a-half years. It's unfortunate my short-term foolish approach prevented me from enjoying those fruits. With this strategy, my portfolio was down 28% on Nov. 4, 2016, exactly one year and five months. And by the way those are, unfortunately, a pretty good 17 months of investing for the rest of us since beginning investing.
Well, things started to change in January 2017," Isaac writes, "when I found your podcasts online. I began listening to them on my way to and from work, picking up valuable knowledge and information each day. I began changing my investing strategy. Choosing more proven companies than speculative biotechs. I opened and maxed out a Roth IRA per Robert Brokamp's recommendation. Bought into the war on cash per Jason Moser's recommendation, and avoided Blue Apron and Snap like the plague." Well played, Isaac.
"Other companies I bought into include Bank of Internet, Spark Therapeutics, and Delta Airlines. When the new investment book" -- The Motley Fool Investment Guide, 3rd Edition -- came out I bought and read through it. Finally, in January of this year, I bought a three-year subscription to Motley Fool Stock Advisor.
"Over the past few months I've been selling my Vanguard ETFs in my IRA and using that money to purchase the recommendations made by David and Tom. Since hitting my lows in November of 2016 that we talked about earlier, now my portfolio is up 48%. That's +20% from my initial investment. I know the market was incredible in 2017, but I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the ride if not for all this stellar advice. Now to the question, which is really just another story," Isaac writes.
"In the first week of February the market" -- remember this, David? -- "took a bit of a hit."
Kretzmann: Oh, yeah!
Gardner: "I read several articles, Isaac said, about why it had happened, and really couldn't pinpoint a good reason for the dip. And it was hammering great companies, some of whom had just reported great earnings. I belief the sell-off was irrational and that it would bounce back within the next month.
"So, I made a foolish decision. I took $3,000 out on margin from Robinhood for $15 and decided to only hold for one month. Again, my thought process was that I could buy solid companies who'd reported good earnings or companies who were about to report that I believed would be good; however, I did not want to hold long because I know that taking money on margin can be dangerous.
So, I bought Visa, Square, SunPower, Spark Therapeutics, and two smaller pharma companies I've owned for a while. At the end of the month I sold everything from that for a total gain of just under 10%. Now, I know it's a small amount of money, but anything helps a medical student," Isaac goes on to say.
"This strategy seems to have worked well for me, despite making the poor decisions of using margin and holding for a very short period of time. However, I felt that the fundamentals of the companies hadn't changed. They'd just been caught up in the tide of panic, which was largely fueled by news headlines of 'the biggest point drop in history.' My question was this." And David, let's start with you. "Was this foolish, Foolish, or somewhere in between? Thanks for taking the time to read on the air this long email. Hopefully anything in the future will be shorter. Signed, Isaac Melin."
Kretzmann: Well, Isaac, my personal opinion, unfortunately, that leans toward the foolish end of the spectrum...
Gardner: And I think Isaac sensed that himself. Didn't you, David?
Kretzmann: Yes, he did get a good outcome, but in a case like this you really have to distinguish between process and outcome. Sometimes you can do a very dumb, foolish process and still have a good outcome, and I would put this in that category. But as Foolish investors, the one thing we can control is our process. Short-term market swings are inevitable. We can't predict where the market will be in a month with any consistency or regularity, but what we can do is control our process of finding quality businesses that we think will become more relevant over time, patiently hold those companies for three-plus years. The Motley Fool's track record and your track record, David, demonstrates that doing that process, practicing that process, usually leads to a market-beating outcome.
Gardner: And that's very nice of you to say that that's The Motley Fool's process. I do think it is, but I think you'll agree with me. Just an index fund -- just the stock market itself -- rises about 10% or so a year over time. I think even if you're not a Fool -- even if you're just mailing it in with the gentleman's C of the index fund -- you're going to benefit from what you just said, David, which is that patience.
Kretzmann: Absolutely. For me it really comes down to process, and as an investor your biggest advantage is time. Whatever you're doing to lengthen your holding period when it comes to stocks will probably improve your long-term outcome but going with margin over a one-month period is really risky and probably won't work out all that often.
Gardner: You know what I think is Foolish? That Isaac thought it out. He wrote it out for us. He even recognized that maybe this wasn't the right thing. It worked for him, but that was very Foolish to get started saving, to be investing, to make the changes he's made in the last year and a half, get the results that he's gotten.
And even though he strayed briefly, I hope it wasn't with too much of what he had. What if it had been a very bad next few months? I hope, Isaac, that wouldn't have daunted you too much. A lot of us are used to losing money our first few years of investing as we learn to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes and keep going forward.
Anyway, I love the human story and I love sharing through mailbag each month these kinds of stories because I think a lot of us can empathize with him and remember that we did that.
Kretzmann: And I think there is a lot to be said for testing and learning. In a case like this, Isaac made a relatively small bet and he learned from it. Something I would keep in mind is he mentioned that nothing had really changed with the businesses that he went into this trade with, but even quality and established businesses like Amazon, Apple -- just look at Facebook over the past month -- can really get dinged in a hard way within three or four weeks. Just because you don't see anything dramatically has changed with the business, market sentiment can change very quickly.