Warren Buffett might seem one of a kind -- and, of course, he is -- but he is not the first famous financier to be held in universally high esteem by peers on Wall Street, politicians in Washington, and the typical person on Main Streets throughout America. That accolade goes to Henry Clews, a New York-based broker and investment banker who got his first break marketing federal bonds during the Civil War.
While Clews went on to amass a fortune, he never lost the ability to offer advice to both policymakers and other investors/speculators in a folksy style mirroring that of the modern-day Oracle of Omaha. Nowhere is this more apparent than Clews' memoir, Fifty Years in Wall Street. Published after the infamous Panic of 1907, the book traces the tumultuous financial history of the Gilded Age and includes lessons and anecdotes about the stock market that are no less valuable today than they were over a century ago
Here are eight of the most prescient pieces of Clews' wisdom that I believe can help people become better investors still today:
1. What it takes to be a great investor/speculator
There is no mental discipline more severe and exacting than that of speculation. There is no pursuit in which a man can less afford to indulge in whims, or prejudices, or pet theories, than that of stacking his money against the prospective changes in financial values. He must be as calm and as impartial as a judge, not less in respect to the risks he incurs than in regard to the integrity of his own judgment. I should lay it down as the first rule necessary to success, that the judgment be not warped by any natural idiosyncrasies; this being secured, a man may succeed in spite of his constitutional defects.
2. Embrace volatility and use it to your advantage
To the question often put, especially by men outside of Wall Street, "How can I make money in Wall Street?" there is probably no better answer than the one given by old Meyer Rothschild to a person who asked him a similar question. He said, "I buys 'sheep' and sells 'dear.' "
Those who follow this method always succeed. There has hardly been a year within my recollection, going back nearly thirty years, when there have not been two or three squalls in "the Street," during the year, when it was possible to purchase stocks below their intrinsic value. The squall usually passes over in a few days, and then the lucky buyers of stocks at panic prices come in for their ranging from five to ten percent on the entire venture.
3. Be wary of the financial media
The object of [financial news] agencies is a useful one; but the public have a right to expect that when they subscribe for information upon which immense transactions may be undertaken, the utmost caution, scrutiny, and fidelity should be exercised in the procurement and publication of the news. Anything that falls short of this is something worse than bad service and bad faith with subscribers; it is dishonest and mischievous.
And yet it cannot be denied that much of the so-called news that reaches the public through these instrumentalities must come under this condemnation. The 'points,' and 'puffs,' the alarms and the canards, put out expressly to deceive and mislead find a wide circulation through these mediums, with an ease which admits of no possible justification.
How far these lapses are due to the haste inseparable from the compilation of news of such a character, how far to a lack of proper sifting and caution, and how far to less culpable reasons, I do not pretend to decide; but this will be admitted by every observer, that the circulation of pseudo news is the frequent cause of incalculable losses.
4. Information can be a double-edge sword
Singular as it may seem, there are no advantages beset with greater dangers than information -- the one thing most largely sought after and most highly prized.
Many speculators lose because the information on which they base their operations is insufficient; more because it is false; and others because, while their information is correct, they do not know how to turn it to account.
5. The need for humility when it comes to investing
All these reminiscences of the ups and downs of Wall Street will serve to remind my readers that, while it is often easy to make money, it is still easier to lose it. Therefore, boldness should be always tempered with caution in the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar in Wall Street.
6. Leave stock speculation to the experts
[S]peculation is a business that must be studied as a specialty, and though it is popularly believed that any man who has money can speculate, yet the ordinary man, without special training in the business, is liable to make as great a mistake in this attempt, as the man who thinks he can act as his own lawyer, and who is said "to have a fool for a client."
The common delusion, that expert knowledge is not required in speculation, has wrecked many fortunes and reputations in Wall Street, and is still very influential in its pernicious and illusory achievements.
7. Always keep a cash reserve
Another source of losses in speculation lies in the speculator not holding back a cash reserve sufficient to protect him against an adverse course of prices. Ordinarily, the man who speculates is of a sanguine temperament, and apt to take risks without sufficient provision against contingencies. Hence, it is common with inexperienced operators to use all their available resources in their original margin.
8. History matters because there is nothing new on Wall Street
[T]he maxim that history repeats itself has been fully verified in Wall Street.