After a month of chats with brilliant authors on Rule Breaker Investing, David Gardner gets back to talking with his favorite podcast conversation partners: the listeners. Yes, it's time again for the monthly mailbag episode.
Among the topics, we have classics such as, "Would you pick this stock or that stock?" There's also a bit of politics, and a hefty dose of fantasy football -- which applies to the art of investing in more ways than you might imagine.
A full transcript follows the video.
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This video was recorded on Aug. 29, 2018.
David Gardner: So, I think I see six mailbag items this month. Without further ado, let's kick it off with Mailbag Item No. 1.
Mailbag Item No. 1: This one comes from sometime correspondent Bill Housley. Bill, thank you for your thoughtful note! It will be my pleasure to share it here. Bill, you started by saying, "David, Mark Penn's microtrends: thought-provoking. I consider myself," Bill says, "a centrist, as well.
"My mind turned to the question, 'What is a centrist?' In a previous Fool podcast Dan Ariely, the great behavioral economist, was interviewed. He asked a sample group, 'Are you better than an average driver?' and the majority said yes. That's something that's been talked about outside of Dan Ariely's circles. It's one of those wag observations you'll hear from time to time. Ask people, 'Are you better than average?' and it turns out, across various dynamics, driving included, they think that they are. We think that we are."
Bill goes on to write, "If we asked a hundred people at random, 'Are you a centrist,' would a majority indicate that they thought themselves in this way?" Bill continues. "I just attended a naturalization ceremony for my good friend from Lebanon. It was an amazing experience.
"I've come to the conclusion that it does not matter whether I am right, center, or left. I am an American through and through, and as my friend was asked to pledge, 'I renounce all other allegiances and I promise to defend the Constitution of the United States from enemies both domestic and foreign,' it matters not if I agree or disagree," Bill concludes, "with my elected official. He or she is my elected official until such time as they are not. The great thing about America is that I can agree or disagree with my elected official without being thrown into jail. I am an American, I am blessed." Signed, Bill Housley.
Well, Bill, I appreciate that note and I agree with you. It caused me to think a little bit about what I mean when I say I'm a moderate, or I'm a centrist, or maybe the average American is a centrist if we just ask the average American what he or she thought of himself or herself. But I thought a little bit more about what I mean when I say I'm moderate, and maybe what you mean, and what maybe our country would benefit more from.
I think I see three traits in place. The first one is that you like to hear both sides. You would actively say ahead of time, "I'm going to learn something from the viewpoint that I'm about to hear." And by the way, when I say both sides, I don't even want to say that because it makes it sound like there are only two ways of thinking and I really don't think that that's true. I think that there are infinite ways of thinking. So maybe I should say that as a moderate, you like to hear from other people. You like to hear different viewpoints. That's trait No. 1.
Trait No. 2 is I think you're often going to have conclusions, since it's good to reach conclusions. We like to hear, but we also need to decide, and I think you're often going to reach conclusions that might sit on either side if there is a left and a right side, or an aisle that we're thinking about, or a Blue Party or a Buff Party. You're going to often have conclusions. If you surveyed yourself across, let's say, 25 different opinions, you might have 10 that swing one way and 15 that swing the other. You could even see yourself switching aisles as you switch viewpoints over the course of time. I think that's more of a centrist trait, a moderate trait.
And then finally, third, and maybe this comes out most strongly to me when I think about how I don't feel personally that interested in the present state of how people talk about the political world today, at least in the United States. I think trait No. 3 is you try to keep politics in perspective. I think part of being more moderate or more centrist is that you don't think it's do or die. It's all or nothing. If this or that person is elected or not, or if this or that law goes into effect or not.
Certainly there are more consequential decisions and more problematic or admirable people -- it's not all comme ci, comme ca -- but I do think that we tend to keep politics in perspective. It's just one sphere of our lives. We don't define ourselves by our political viewpoints and we don't amp things up to such a degree that it seems yes, I'll go back to that phrase again; a matter of do or die whether somebody gets elected or not, or whether one particular law goes into effect, or a tax is enacted or not.
Certainly if it's a particularly good one, we hope that those will stick; the person or the law. If it's a particularly bad one, I think our system has proven over the course of a couple of hundred years that things can change. We can undo that thing. We can vote for somebody else. But I think to conclude, that centrist or moderate position, which I truly do think most Americans share, even if we don't get the headlines; even if we're not driving the national dialogue and it's just battles of two different headlines back and forth or two different tribes; I think that we have those traits going on in our lives. To summarize, we like to hear different viewpoints. We'll often have conclusions that could sit on either side of the traditional binary pairings we hear about.
And then No. 3, we keep these things in perspective. Outside of politics, there's your business life, or what's happening in the business world. There's your personal life. There's your family. There's what's happening in your community. All of those things define you -- not just, maybe, your political perspective.
And in fact to be timely and to conclude this point, I want to read something that I read. I'm going to just read a portion of it. But it's John McCain's final statement. At the end of his life Senator McCain gave a statement to be read to his fellow Americans by his family and a spokesman close to him. And I'm not going to read the whole thing. It's not very long, but I think that he's really conveying to me a lot of what you and I are talking about when we talk about being moderate.
And this, again, by the way all comes out of that Mark Penn Microtrends book and the conversation I had with him in the Weekend Extra about politics and just what trends are in place today. I sure hope that being moderate is maybe more than a microtrend and certainly will, I hope, grow in the coming decade. But here's what McCain said. I just want to highlight a few things.
He said, "My fellow Americans whom I've gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonans,
"Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I've tried to serve our country honorably. I've made mistakes. But I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.
"I have often observed that I'm the luckiest person on Earth. I have loved my life -- all of it. I've had experiences, adventures, and friendships enough for 10 satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else's.
"I owe that satisfaction to the love of my family. No man ever had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine, and I owe it to America. To be connected to America's causes -- liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime than life's fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.
"'Fellow Americans – that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world's greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.
"We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
"We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do."
And again, Senator McCain's statement went on from there. There's more of it than that, but I want to just pull out those key parts, especially that last section about what we share and that we share so much more than what we allow to divide us. That's such an important point to remember.
And to conclude before Mailbag Item No. 2, something I said on this podcast months ago I'm going resay now, which is remember that our tendency as human beings is to judge others by their results and judge ourselves by our intention; so it's very easy to look at Sally or Jim and say, "You know, he or she just didn't get it done." And then, unfortunately when we tend not to get things done we tend to say, "Well, here's what I was trying to do, though. I was trying to do that, whether or not I got it done."
So again, we tend to judge others by their results and ourselves by our intentions and what I've said before on this podcast is reverse that for yourself and you'll be a stronger person. So do your best to judge yourself by your results and others by their intentions, and even people who are politically very different today in any country; if you look at somebody else and say, "Well, what is he or she actually trying to do," often you'll find they're trying to do the same thing that you are, which is to make for a better world. You might disagree on what form that should take, but remember their intentions, investigate their intentions, and look deeply into your own heart at your own results, investment or otherwise. So, thank you for your note, Bill!
Mailbag Item No. 2: This one comes from Hugh Wade writing in from Anchorage, Alaska. Thank you, Hugh! "David, hey bud, how are you doing?" I love how that starts. "Hey, bud, how are you doing?" We're going to have a little bit more of that tone from Hugh later in the note, which I really appreciate.
"Here's a question for you," Hugh goes on. "In a hypothetical laboratory setting, if you were forced to choose between investing in either Etsy or Amazon, what would you choose?" Hugh goes on to say, "I know you don't like binary thinking or questions, and you've taught me a lot about that [thank you very much], but hey, this is a thought exercise."
Hugh goes on, "I'm thinking Amazon, as they're a retailer but they are so much more. They're the true innovator, big-picture megalong-term player, including cloud computing, outer space, AI, drones, etc. while Etsy seems to be pretty awesome but mostly they just seem like a very good operator in a tough niche: online retail going up against Amazon, etc. Anyway, it would be good to hear what you have to say about this." Hugh goes on, "Rock 'n' roll. I'm still mad you don't have print issues but what the heck. Life goes on and I've adapted and still read their articles religiously every month and make buying decisions based on what I rad from Rule Breakers and Stock Advisor, too. Rock 'n' roll." Hugh Wade.
I love not just saying, "Hey, bud," but saying "rock 'n' roll" and then saying, "rock 'n' roll" again all in the context of asking a really thoughtful question about Amazon vs. Etsy.
First off, Hugh, thank you very much. Sorry, but our services typically are now all online as opposed to print issues. I know there are a lot of print issue fans out there, but I'm glad to know that we're still being relevant to you and helpful for you, and you've asked a really fun question.
Of course, I'd want to disclaim and say, "Own them both," and not just two stocks. You should have at least 15 in your portfolio and for a lot of people who come new to Motley Fool Stock Advisor, let's say, our goal is to get them from zero stocks, where often they start. They haven't even thought of investing in a stock directly before. They might have some funds, but investing in stocks, that sounds risky to them, so to take that person from zero stocks to 15 stocks is our biggest goal with Motley Fool Stock Advisor. At least, that's how I think about it.
But you're getting right down there and saying, "Hey, this stock vs. that one," and I love playing that game, too. And just so you know Hugh [and anybody else listening who cares about our Best Buys Now that come out in Stock Advisor and Rule Breakers every month], we look at what are five companies among our existing recommendations today. This is not a new recommendation. We say, "What are five companies that we would like and favor over the next three-plus years? Ones we've already recommended in the past that we like right now -- Best Buys Now -- not because they're going to be great for this month or this week, but if you are buying with new money now, which stocks would you buy for the next three-plus years that you might already have some of?" So that's the way a lot of people use our Best Buys Now.
The reason I'm mentioning that is because I go through the process, before picking those every month, of taking stocks and putting them up against each other, much like you're asking me to do here with Amazon and Etsy. And Hugh, the way I typically approach this is I ask myself, "Pretend you had to put all of your money in just one of these two companies."
Now, that's nothing that you have to do or ever should do but imagine if you had to put all of your money in one or another company, and let's say go off to the proverbial deserted island for 10 years. That's usually the question I'll ask myself when I try to decide between stocks for Best Buys Now.
So applying that same methodology here, Hugh, I also arrive at Amazon, because to me, if I had to put everything I had in the world in one of these two companies and walk away for 10 years, I'm going to be much more confident that Amazon is around, is relevant, and thriving.
I could easily see Etsy outperforming Amazon over the next 10 years. Etsy starts from a much smaller base. It's a sub $10 billion market cap company, an excellent player, and is doing a wonderful job creating an ecosystem. I mean, it really has buyers and sellers who love handcrafted goods, and there are even people who, in the geeky world of board gaming, you can go to Etsy and buy somebody who's made a nicer draw bag. If you have Scrabble, and you're drawing tiles, let's say, from a bag, they're just nicer bags that you can buy, so you can bling out your board games. I mean, Etsy has a lot of relevance to a lot of different people, and it's a global brand, I think.
So I think Etsy could really grow, here, over the next 10 years, but with the old "deserted island" approach, [if I] had to put it all in one or the other, that binary question you asked, Hugh, and I like the question; I would also pick Amazon for those reasons.
So, there's the answer to your question. The good news is, of course, we don't have to just buy one of them. We own them all. All of our recommendations, here, in Stock Advisor and Rule Breakers are owned by many different members and I hope you own both of them, but thanks for a fun question and an opportunity to share a little bit about how I think about making those decisions in our services.
Mailbag Item No. 3: This one comes from Joe Brown. It's a very timely note, because it's talking about fantasy football and it's that football time of year. It's just about to be here in the United States of America, so I thought this was fun. Thanks Joe, for your thinking!
"David and Fool Team," he writes. "I know David's a big fan of games, so I thought it would be appropriate to send this note at this time of year. One of the biggest games for millions of people all over the world is fantasy football. With the NFL season about to launch, it's good to reflect on the Foolish investing lessons we can learn from fantasy football." Joe has included four in his note and let's go through them.
"First, fantasy football is much like the stock market. You take a stake in a player and can reap the benefits based on the individual's performance in the game. As a fantasy manager," Joe says, "I look for players that could be both steady performers and also have high impact in certain games.
"Second, some managers will look at players [for example, celebrated quarterback Tom Brady] and think he cannot sustain this performance much longer. However, Tom Brady continues to impress doing things no other quarterback has ever done, leaving many managers standing on the sidelines. We have to let the player tell us, through performance, they can no longer sustain the level of performance.
"Third," Joe writes, "with the draft of college players, some managers put too much hope on the young performers. Oh, sure, there may be some players coming out of the gate who will be superstars. You also have several who will be duds. As a manager and investor, we cannot buy into the hype. Look for the performance. Let them prove themselves draft eligible.
"And fourth, during the season fantasy owners can drop underperforming players and pick up free agents. Many times managers drop players too quickly. For example, if quarterback Alex Smith has two bad games, a manager may drop him thinking the Redskins, for whom he plays this season [the Washington Redskins] are not for him. However, Alex Smith has proved himself a steady performer in years past. We cannot give up on our winner too quickly. It is a long season.
"To close, while the benefits of winning or losing a fantasy league range from glory to shame, the benefits of winning in investing can be life-changing. I hope you enjoyed this message. I tried to make it fun, educational, and enriching. Fool on!" Joe Brown.
Well, Joe, first of all thank you for hailing back to our mantra [to educate, to amuse, and to enrich] -- what The Motley Fool has been trying to do for many years, now. In fact, about 25 years, and so thanks for the line about trying to make it fun, educational, and enriching, because that aligns a lot with what we try to do here at The Motley Fool and certainly what I try to do on this podcast.
I've always appreciated the comparisons between games and the stock market, and certainly a fantasy game, like fantasy football. I like what you've highlighted, there, and I think we can learn a lot about ourselves as investors based on how we play these fantasy games [fantasy baseball, fantasy football]. They are very popular. I realize there will be a lot of listeners who don't play it or don't know what I'm talking about probably; but I wanted to make it clear that I think you can really simulate good thinking [trial and error] and learn a lot about yourself through playing games [in this case fantasy football], and then you can bring those insights about your own nature and the world at large and help that inform your investing.
I certainly feel like I'm a better investor today because I learned of Bill James decades ago. Then the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis came out and talked about Bill James and how he'd revolutionized baseball by being a scientist. Even though he, himself, was not an accomplished player [he was just a journalist], he actually took a scientific approach to understanding how to do baseball better. That has always helped me think about how to do investing better.
And maybe you don't have to be a professional. You don't have to be a former player, like Bill James wasn't, to be a really brilliant investor by bringing insights that you can gain about yourself and about the world at large and make them sing in your investing. So, thanks. Cheers for the note, Joe Brown. I hope you enjoy the football season.
I do want to mention that puts me in mind of an exchange I had on Twitter a few days ago with Nick Burgess, @Nicburgess. Nick was saying, "Hey, enjoyed Mark Penn and his microtrends." Nick was saying, "Did you think there were any microtrends you can see that he didn't call out?"
And I thought about it and I ended up replying, "Yeah, I think I see a new microtrend that Mark hasn't written in his book, because, of course, he can only fit 50 in his book and he's only going to publish once every decade or so; so of course new ones will show up. I think there's a microtrend against football right now. High school football. College football. Even pro football."
This is not a macro trend but I do see people starting to object to the concussions in the sport. This is certainly a very noticeable thing, so this is not news to anybody, but the microtrend might be people starting to opt out. Not following football as much. Not wanting to participate or cheer it on. I know some people like that in my own life. My brother, Tom, is very active within the CTE movement of raising consciousness about how maybe football isn't the best thing for kids to start with, but even adults, too.
I think that's an interesting microtrend to watch and you and I can watch that in the year ahead. I'm going to call that one Pigskin Boycotters, because Mark Penn does a nice job in his book coming up with a colorful phrase around each of his microtrends, so watch out for pigskin boycotters here this fall.
And before we get to No. 4, I should also mention that I got a nice note from Kenneth Rudnicki for Mailbag. I'm not going to read it in full, this month, but he was reacting [speaking of football] to combat football and the fun exchange I had last month's mailbag with somebody who talked about combat football and how that's a really interesting sport. Anybody who cares can go back and listen to the last mailbag.
But Kenneth Rudnicki, you were saying, "Hey, while combat football is an interesting thing," here's another sport that Kenneth actively participates in, and it's roller derby. That's right, Kenneth. You may remember roller derby on TV in the '80s. It's something akin to professional wrestling [maybe not entirely being real], but things have changed. It's now played as a legitimate sport. The rules are a little complicated. You can look them up online, if you like, but you can see the game can be quite dynamic because you have both offense and defense being played at the same time. Anyway, thanks for that shout-out to combat football, football, and in this case, roller derby.
Mailbag Item No. 4: Now, this was definitely a literary month, especially with Amor Towles on talking about A Gentleman in Moscow and so some of you were in a more literary frame of mind. I find myself in that same literary frame of mind this particular mailbag. Kurt Elia, you wrote in and you shared your favorite poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
I'm going to read that poem, but then I'm going to read Kurt's reflections on how it helps us think about investing. Anytime we're pulling things from outside the world of investing, and then we're gaining investing or business insights from it, well that's often where Rule Breaker Investing lives and breathes, and this particular month I think we're feeling a little bit more literary, so thank you, Kurt, for writing in. And here is A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
I should mention, by the way, that Longfellow, who lived from 1807 to 1882, is considered by many as one of America's earliest celebrities. His poetry was so popular that he was the most popular poet of his time and because poetry was a much bigger thing in the 19th century, I think it's fair to say that in the 21st century, Longfellow had a huge following and this particular poem Kurt will mention [in his note that I'll read after] why it's meaningful to him, but let's go through A Psalm of Life: What the Heart of The Young Man Said to the Psalmist. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It starts:
A Psalm of Life
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act -- act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
Again, that's The Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. So Kurt, thanks for the note, and here was your note. You said, "Dear David, as I was walking along the beach, here, in Topsail, North Carolina this morning on a family vacation, one of my favorite poems came to mind and as I recited it to the waves and the seagulls..." I love the imagery, Kurt. I can see you out there. And as a fellow Carolina Beach guy, I appreciate the geography.
Anyway, "It occurred to me," Kurt says, "that in addition to the timeless lessons it contains on life, a few of its passages are also strikingly meaningful from an investing perspective. Given your background as an English major and your Foolish tendency to apply literary wisdom to your investing philosophy, I thought you might enjoy examining this classic from this new point of view." So I've already given you, my dear listeners, the full text from Kurt, but here are a few passages that Kurt calls out as speaking to his inner investor.
No. 1 is "things are not what they seem," Kurt writes. "When stock prices rise or crash violently, it doesn't mean the companies they represent are really worth more or less than they were the day before. Stay focused on the business. Ditto the hyperbolic quotes; opinion and analysis offered by pundits on CNBC or Barron's or wherever. Ignore a lot of the noise."
No. 2 is, "Be not like dumb, driven cattle!" Yup, that one jumped out to me, as well, Kurt. "Be a hero in the strife!" Kurt says, "Don't follow the herd. Most people, including professional fund managers, lose to the market. Don't do what most people do or try to follow the conventional wisdom. Rather, break the rules and think for yourself." I appreciate that, Kurt.
No. 3. "Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!" Kurt says, "The big, comfortable, profitable companies of today will not exist in the future if they don't proactively change. The only certainty is that new, disruptive technologies and business models will make the future look different from today in ways we can't even imagine. The market is forward-looking. We must be, too." Amen, Kurt. Love it! Thank you!
Point No. 4 [by the way, you've got three more]. "Let the dead Past bury its dead!" You say, "Don't learn too well the lessons of your past investing failures and certainly don't dwell on them. Whatever a stock has done in the past, you need to let that go and focus on what it is going to do in the future."
No. 5 is "Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime." Kurt says, "There are so many heroes out there to inspire us. Not just remind us that it's possible to beat the market, but also to see the better world we can create for ourselves, our families, and the world with the resources that a lifetime of investing will put at our disposal." And again, amen, Brother.
And No. 6. You close with, "Learn to labor and to wait." And that was Longfellow's final line. Kurt says, "Work hard, save your money, invest in great companies and then be patient. Time is our greatest asset." Well, that line also jumped out to me, as well, because I think so often in life we think that we are going to be rewarded for efforts that we make, and rightly so.
In many contexts, the heart of the effort that we make, the more success we can drive and, yet, the great irony of investing is to learn to labor and with Longfellow to wait; and so many of the biggest mistakes we make as investors, especially if we look backwards, briefly, and count the money we could have made or when we sell too early. Great companies [Apple back in the '80s], let's say. Or if you sold Netflix during the Qwikster debacle of 2011. We make those mistakes when we realize, in retrospect, had we just waited how much better things might have been.
I wonder if that will be true of Tesla. Tesla hasn't had a great year. In fact, over the last 12 months Tesla's stock is below the market's return. It just kind of jumped up and jumped down, but it's been an uninspiring, although headline-filled last 12 months for Tesla, and its stock has performed right about where Ford has performed; Ford stock, as well. Tesla and Ford very similar, ironically, performances. But I wonder whether a lot of the overheated headlines about Elon taking his company private or not will, like other things, pass. This, too, might pass and maybe if you just wait you'll find that in time Tesla is your greatest asset. We shall see. I know where my money is.
To close, thanks again, Kurt. It was my pleasure to share both Longfellow's poem and your very Foolish reflections on what you can pull from that poem and remind each of us, as investors and fellow livers of life, how to do it better. You close by saying, "I hope these passages resonate with you as much as they did with me and, as always, I look forward to your next batch of investing wisdom and fun on the Rule Breakers podcast."
Well, thank you, Kurt! One of the things I love about mailbag is it's not my wisdom. It's so often yours, my fellow listeners, my fellow Fools. Getting to show that off once a month and make it clear that there is so much great insight among our community and I certainly, selfishly, benefit from that as much as anybody else.
So from talking about centrism as a microtrend, to deciding between Amazon and Etsy, looking for insights from investing from fantasy football or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, we now get to Mailbag Items No. 5 and 6 and yes, there's some more literary, here. In fact, I'm going to be sharing a sonnet from one of our members and I'm also going to close this week's podcast with a reading of the start of one of my favorite books.
I'm going to say this ahead of time. If you're just looking for investment content, then you probably can tune out the rest of this particular podcast. I certainly hope you'll rejoin me next week for my five-stock sampler, but this last section is for people who really love language and literature. Again, it's the end of our Authors in August series. So it's my pleasure to share with those who are still listening an inspirational story I'm about to share, and then a sonnet, and then a dramatic reading, and that's what we've got for you on the tail end of this podcast.
Mailbag Item No. 5: One of the things I often try to do -- feature often toward the end of our mailbags over the years -- are inspirational stories, and I found this particular note really inspirational. My correspondent asked that his name not be read, so I will not share it. This is anonymous, but here's how it reads.
"Dear David Gardner, I want to thank you for everything you do. My friend turned me on to your podcast last year. I couldn't be happier except for buying Celgene and Impinj at their highs. You have a great, engaging voice that keeps my attention for the most part because I have ADD.
"Prior to your podcasts I was picking some pretty lousy stocks; stocks less than $10 a share. Chasing them as they went higher and selling at the lowest points. Losing money. Letting fear get the best of me during a downward 'correction.'
"I have a learning disability and my processing happens very slowly. I've been diagnosed with auditory processing disorder, dyslexia, language processing disorder, visual perceptual/ visual motor deficit among a couple of others; so getting a job and making money comes by much harder than it does for most. I've had trouble holding jobs because of my slow processing, but I'm motivated and determined to keep moving forward.
"I've been listening to your podcasts almost every day for the past year, but because of my disability I have to listen to them multiple times so I understand what is being said, so I haven't gotten through all of them. I recently got a good job and to keep the job I usually have to work at home, because I'm unable to complete tasks at work so I don't have a whole lot of time. In the past school and college have given me extra time to complete all my tasks. Not the case for this job.
"My dad gave me money for a down payment on a house, but instead I used some of the money and bought your Supernova program. Because of you I'm changing my thinking to long-term holding and not selling my losing positions. It hasn't been an easy journey changing my thinking style. I wish I had the time to read all that I have signed up for, but I do read many of the ones with the stocks that I bought, even if it's old news by the time I get to reading it."
Now this correspondent asks a couple of questions, at this point, which I'm going to speak to just after finishing, but I do just want to finish the note.
"Once again, thank you for your podcasts and picking great stocks. I hope one day I, too, can achieve financial freedom. And finally, while you're thinking you're changing the lives of normal people, you're also changing the lives of abnormal people like myself. I look forward to listening to more podcasts. Thanks once again."
Well, before I answer your two brief questions, I just want to say that a couple of things really jump out to me in your note. First of all, I appreciate how challenged you are. It's something that many of us just take for granted, and that is just learning. It's hard to have your attention distracted. I think we can all recognize we all do that. It's partly human. You see a squirrel and go, "Squirrel!" and all of a sudden get distracted, but some of us get more distracted than others.
So I absolutely appreciate that you've been able to fight through that and change the way you think about investing. Be more long-term minded and not just chasing lower-price-per-share stocks and selling at the wrong time. It is, in fact, a great benefit for all of us regardless of our degrees of attention that we take a long-term approach and in Supernova, the service you subscribed to, one of the things that we do is we tend to buy and not really to sell very much. That's also true of Stock Advisor and Rule Breakers.
And what I've always done as an investor -- what I've tried to teach for 25 years through Fool.com -- is that approach to really owning businesses. Finding great ones. And the good news is as our attention gets distracted by other things in life [whether it's summer vacation and what we're going to read, or the new job that you've got, or somebody new that might be a new romantic person in your life], all of those many wonderful things that life calls us to do; you can truly be distracted away from the stock market when you take the Foolish approach to investing. So those things jumped out at me and I really want to thank you for sharing your story. I know it's of benefit to others hearing it.
You asked a couple of quick questions I'll speak to. You said you've been following indices like the S&P 500 and it looks like the Russell 2000. The S&P 500, of course, is 500 of the largest companies in America. That's used as a bellwether. That's often how we talk about how the market did last year. We say, "How did the S&P 500 do last year?" and if it was up 13% we'll say, "the market was up 13%." Most professional fund managers use the S&P 500 as their bogey that they're competing against, but you're talking about the Russell 2000.
Now that's 2,000 companies -- way more than 500 -- and in particular lots of smaller companies, so the Russell 2000 index is one that people sometimes compare to the S&P 500 and they say which one's done better over the last year or last five years. And you're saying over the last couple of years it looks like the Russell 2000 has beaten the S&P 500, so would I recommend buying into a fund that owns the Russell 2000.
And I would say if you are fund-minded -- if you're looking for an index fund -- I think the Russell is a perfectly good, valid, and interesting one. I personally don't invest in mutual funds, period, pretty much; but we've often [and I do] recommend index funds on this podcast. And if you have an S&P 500 index fund, I think it can be fun or interesting to diversify into a Russell 2000 index fund, as well. I want to make sure with index funds we keep our fees really low, but outside of that, if you're not looking for a new stock right now [you're looking for a fund or an index fund], I think the Russell is a perfectly good, legitimate, and interesting one to follow.
And then the other question you asked is, "A lot of my picks in Stock Advisor and Rule Breakers don't seem to be big Dow heavyweights." They're not, you say, Caterpillar, for example. They're not John Deere. They're often companies involved in technology. And so what are my thoughts about infrastructural stocks?
And to answer that as quickly as I can and keep on point, here, I would say that I tend not to group stocks in terms of their industry or what they do. I try to look at each company on its own merits. I ask, "Is that company doing something important in this world that leads to a better world?" I ask, "Is the company growing? Does it have opportunities to do new things; either taking existing technologies it has and bringing it to new markets, like around the globe, or to take something and to morph it." For example, Amazon starts by selling books, but all of a sudden, years later, they're selling everything all from that same e-commerce platform. So what kind of optionality or new possibilities do these companies have?
And so typically yes, you're right. It takes me toward companies that are more innovators. And if I had to summarize all of my investments into a single word I'd say the "innovators." Those are the Rule Breakers -- the ones breaking the rules of how business is done today. I'd say, in every industry or in every field, who's innovating? Who's the innovator? And so yes, often the infrastructural stocks are not doing that as much, or as clearly, but many are.
And in some cases, what does infrastructural even mean? It doesn't always mean a Dow heavyweight. I'll give you an example from Motley Fool Stock Advisor -- Ecolab. That's a wonderful company. The leading global provider of cleaning, sanitation, and often involved in getting rid of bad chemicals. Those kinds of things. This is a very powerful company. It is a global leader. It's not often mentioned. It's not a Dow heavyweight, but it is an infrastructural company, but a very innovative company. So that's an example among those infrastructural companies one of those that I like.
I should mention I first recommended Ecolab at $115.86 in June of 2016. It's behind the market. It is up 29%, but the market's up 46% since then, so we don't always beat the market with those companies. It is nice that the stock's done well and, of course, over the longer term I sure hope it will be a market beater. I'm counting on that. But it's a $44 billion company today. That's the market cap around the time that we're taping. So there's an example of kind of an infrastructural but innovative company.
Anyway, thank you for your lovely note! It was a pleasure to share your viewpoint!
Mailbag Item No. 6. Well, Andrew vonderLuft, who is a listener, wrote in this week, and he wrote this. "To David and other Breakers, I enjoyed reading A Gentleman in Moscow a few months ago, so was interested in hearing your interview with Amor Towles on the RBI podcast which I listen to regularly.
"I was particularly inspired by your question about the challenges of developing a compelling plot within such a literally confined space," because that is, after all, what Towles is doing with A Gentleman in Moscow. The protagonist, basically, is in a hotel for almost the entire novel. "You compared this to the creative process of writing a poem within the prescribed structure of the sonnet [14 lines, eight and six].
"Being an English major yourself, David, and a lover of Shakespeare both commend you to me," Andrew writes. "I trust you will pardon me for not following the Petrarchan pattern of eight and six, but rather employing the easier Shakespearean form of three quatrains and a couplet. Well, here goes. I hope you enjoy it."
And that's right. Andrew vonderLuft has been inspired by this podcast to write the following sonnet, which I share joyfully. He's entitled it, Word Play, and Andrew, you're already showing yourself not only to be a fine poet, but to be far more literarily inclined than your now somber host. I think I hold a pale candle to your clearly demonstrated appreciation of the language and literature. So thank you for this! Here it comes. This is Andrew's sonnet. It's entitled, Word Play.
With homonymic play
I pray you hear
And find if here
I write what's right or no.
I know in hunter's quest
The deer is dear
Not so the useless knot
For those who sew.
Pronunciation plays another game
When route] may rhyme with either out or suit
Though sounds conflict they signify the same
For dialect is seldom absolute.
The play of ambiguity is deaf
When ambidextrous options are in sight
The one not chosen on your right is left
But what you choose is on your left and right.
The playfulness of words is quite the school
To make of me more of a Motley Fool.
That was spectacular, Andrew, and we're going to go ahead and tweet that out in the week ahead, so if you're following @RBIPodcast, this podcast's Twitter account, and you want to see Andrew's extreme word play punning throughout... I hope you could appreciate a lot of that as I read it out loud and as you all heard it for the first time; but to actually take some time and appreciate what he's done here, you really do need to see it visually.
So thank you, Andrew. We'll share that out. And you wrote at the conclusion, "I've been a subscriber to Motley Fool Pro for a few years, now, and some other services. They've helped me a great deal as I'm inexorably approaching retirement age. Thanks and Fool on!" Andrew vonderLuft. Well from one Fool clearly to another. Thank you, Andrew!
Mailbag Item No. 6: And this final Mailbag item also, as I mentioned, includes my dramatic reading. Now why am I bothering with this at the end of this podcast? Well, first of all I'm not sure it's going to compare to Andrew's poem, but we'll still give it a shot.
This is the opening of one of my favorite comedic books. I know there are some P.G. Wodehouse fans out there. Ken Hart, I see you and I know a lot of others appreciate Wodehouse. In fact, I asked Amor Towles about whether he was a Wodehouse fan and it turns out he was.
Well, lesser known than P.G. Wodehouse but also hailing from the same country, the United Kingdom, a novelist named Jerome Klapka Jerome came of age more than a century ago. I think his classic Three Men in a Boat was published in around the year 1900, so the turn of the previous century. And while there's some purple prose that seems a little dated, and it occasionally veers toward the sentimental, the comedic aspect of Three Men in a Boat is superior. Superlative. This is, I think, one of the funnier novels you'll ever find.
So if your summer's still not over and you still have a little room for a quicker read of a comedic novel from a century ago, then I hope you'll think about Three Men in a Boat. It's largely about three men, probably approaching [inexorably] their retirement age who get together and just go up the Thames and have some rollicking adventures together. Never anything particularly dramatic. Part of the humor of the novel is really how pedestrian, in a lot of ways, their trip up the Thames is.
But really the author Jerome Jerome -- yes, that's his given name -- Jerome's style is what jumps. Just like P.G. Wodehouse brings his own style to a book and he could almost tell you a story about anybody and it would still be funny; well, that's true of Jerome. I'm just going to read the start of this novel because it's a great comic bit up front.
It's my pleasure to share it with you and I think how many other podcasts there could be in the world, today, that would be largely talking about investing but would share the start of Three Men in a Boat and Jerome Jerome's handiwork. Maybe there's only one and you happen to be listening to it. Here we go.
And, of course, I'll be effecting my British accent because that's what I do when I read Wodehouse, or Jerome, or whatever. I'm sure I'll get some of it wrong, and I'm always happy to receive mailbag help next month as to how I can improve my accent, but to me this deserves to be read in something like this accent because it was written by somebody who spoke much like this and that's part of the fun.
Three Men in a Boat
There were four of us--George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were--bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.
We were all feeling seedy, and we were getting quite nervous about it. Harris said he felt such extraordinary fits of giddiness come over him at times, that he hardly knew what he was doing; and then George said that he had fits of giddiness too, and hardly knew what he was doing. With me, it was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all.
It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.
I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch--hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into--some fearful, devastating scourge, I know--and, before I had glanced half down the list of "premonitory symptoms," it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.
I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever--read the symptoms--discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it--wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus's Dance--found, as I expected, that I had that too,--began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically -read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright's disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the onlymalady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid's knee.
I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn't I got housemaid's knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid's knee.
Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.
I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! Students would have no need to "walk the hospitals," if they had me. I was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, and, after that, take their diploma.
Then I wondered how long I had to live. I tried to examine myself. I felt my pulse. I could not at first feel any pulse at all. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to start off. I pulled out my watch and timed it. I made it a hundred and forty-seven to the minute. I tried to feel my heart. I could not feel my heart. It had stopped beating. I have since been induced to come to the opinion that it must have been there all the time, and must have been beating, but I cannot account for it. I patted myself all over my front, from what I call my waist up to my head, and I went a bit round each side, and a little way up the back. But I could not feel or hear anything. I tried to look at my tongue. I stuck it out as far as ever it would go, and I shut one eye, and tried to examine it with the other. I could only see the tip, and the only thing that I could gain from that was to feel more certain than before that I had scarlet fever.
I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.
I went to my medical man. He is an old chum of mine, and feels my pulse, and looks at my tongue, and talks about the weather, all for nothing, when I fancy I'm ill; so I thought I would do him a good turn by going to him now. "What a doctor wants," I said, "is practice. He shall have me. He will get more practice out of me than out of seventeen hundred of your ordinary, commonplace patients, with only one or two diseases each." So I went straight up and saw him, and he said:
"Well, what's the matter with you?"
I said: "I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is not the matter with me. I have not got housemaid's knee. Why I have not got housemaid's knee, I cannot tell you; but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I have got."
And I told him how I came to discover it all.
Then he opened me and looked down me, and clutched hold of my wrist, and then he hit me over the chest when I wasn't expecting it--a cowardly thing to do, I call it--and immediately afterwards butted me with the side of his head. After that, he sat down and wrote out a prescription, and folded it up and gave it me, and I put it in my pocket and went out.
I did not open it. I took it to the nearest chemist's, and handed it in. The man read it, and then handed it back.
He said he didn't keep it.
I said: "You are a chemist?"
He said: "I am a chemist. If I was a co-operative stores and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me."
I read the prescription. It ran:
"1 lb. beefsteak, with 1 pt. bitter beer every 6 hours.
1 ten-mile walk every morning.
1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
And don't stuff up your head with things you don't understand."
I followed the directions, with the happy result--speaking for myself--that
my life was preserved, and is still going on.
As always, people on this program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Learn more about Rule Breaker Investing at RBI.Fool.com.