Investing on your own? Here are 3 principles to live by

Investing success often comes down to how well you adhere to these three core philosophies.

There's a never-ending supply of gurus telling us how and where to invest. Every year has a 'next big thing'. Biotechs, rare earth mining, cryptocurrencies, fancy milk, you name it. The truth is, though, markets are unpredictable in the short term - there are no magic industries, companies or formulas that will help you get rich quick. There is, however, a simple set of principles that will help you to get rich slowly. 

1. Think of stocks as real businesses

That's what they are: part-ownership in actual companies. When you buy shares in, say, Woolworths (ASX: WOW), you become a passive owner of that company and have a right to a portion of its future profits, as well as a slice of every warehouse, cash register and unsold potato. 

Whether you own a bakery in partnership with your brother-in-law, or you own Woolworths in partnership with a million other shareholders, the principle is the same - think like an owner of a business, not a gambler speculating on what the share price will do next. 

2. Price does not equal value

Extending the bakery analogy, imagine that your brother-in-law came to you every morning with an offer: a price he would be willing to pay for your share of the business, and a price at which he would be willing to sell you his. This is exactly how the stock market works - you own a slice of a real business and get a constant stream of offers from other shareholders. 

The intrinsic value of a business is a function of all the cash it will throw off, discounted back into today's dollars at a suitable rate of return. The market tells you the current price people are offering to buy and sell it. There's a big difference. I can offer to sell you a $10 note for $15, but that doesn't mean the note is worth more. Share prices bounce around far more than the value of the underlying businesses because share prices are dictated, at least in the short term, by human psychology.

If you're focused on the share price, rather than the business, you're going to make silly decisions. You wouldn't do this for your bakery: you'd care about how the bakery was doing at the end of each year - how much money it made, whether a new bakery opened next door, whether it needed to borrow cash etc - than what offer price your nutty brother-in-law comes up with.

Volatile share prices are a source of opportunity: If you have a firm idea of what your bakery is worth, when the offer price undervalues it, you can increase your ownership stake, and when it's too high, you can sell. A volatile share market gives you options, nothing more. You never have to act. Benjamin Graham first explained the idea that a wild stock market was advantageous to level-headed investors in his book The Intelligent Investor. He also developed this next philosophy. 

3. Build in a margin of safety

No one knows what that future will look like. You can make some educated guesses based on a company's history, its competitive advantages, and forecasts about market growth and profitability. But ultimately you need to leave room for errors in your forecasts. If you do the sums and figure a company is worth $5.00 per share, don't buy aggressively when the share price hits $4.99. It's better to wait for a wide discrepancy of 20-50% so that if something goes wrong, you aren't caught overpaying. A margin of safety won't eliminate mistakes, but it will swing the odds in your favour.  

Over the past 17 years, Intelligent Investor's recommendations have outperformed the market by 5.2% a year on average. We achieved this without special formulas, software, or inside information. Instead, we followed three basic principles: recognise that stocks are slices of real businesses, focus on the value of those businesses rather than share price movements, and only invest when there's a wide margin of safety. 

For a more detailed list of investing principles, see A 12-point checklist for choosing stocks.

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