Monday, February 3, 2014

The Elements of Investing

I recently read "The Elements of Investing" a short book of elementary investment advice by Burton Malkiel and Charles D. Ellis.  I am a bit conflicted about this book.  On the one hand I agree with almost everything in it.  But on the other hand I didn't find it very interesting because it was largely making arguments I already knew for positions I already agreed with.  And I am not sure how convincing it would be if you weren't already in agreement.

Malkiel and Ellis start by making the sensible point that it doesn't matter how good an investor you are if you don't have anything to invest.  So for most people (starting without sizable inherited wealth) accumulating substantial wealth will require saving a lot of their income.  This may seem obvious but in my view is sometimes neglected.  Realistically saving more of your income is a surer path to increasing your wealth than attempting to achieve above average investment returns. 

Malkiel and Ellis emphasize the importance of starting to save when you are young to allow more time for investment returns to compound.  There is some truth to this but the effect can be exaggerated.  In many cases your income will grow as you get older allowing you to put aside increasing amounts each year making your early years of saving even compounded less significant to the final result than if you were putting aside the same amount every year as the illustrative examples (including the one in this book) often assume. 

Another point of disagreement is that Malkiel and Ellis uncritically support borrowing to buy a house.  This can be a good idea especially if you have a stable employment situation but has real risks which the authors ignore.

Malkiel and Ellis go on to discuss how people should invest their accumulating savings.  They conclude that a mix of low cost index funds is the way to go.  This is simple and easy to implement and difficult to beat even for full time professional investors.  I agree with this in theory (although I have deviated from this in practice mostly to my cost).

So to sum up this book makes the case that most people should invest largely in index funds.  I don't really disagree but found the book a bit boring.  So if you aren't familiar with the case for index funds this book may be an useful introduction but if you are I don't think this book adds a lot.

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