By Jason Zweig
It is sometimes said that to be an intelligent investor, you must be unemotional. That isn’t true; instead, you should be inversely emotional.
Even after recent turbulence, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up roughly 30% since its low in March. It is natural for you to feel happy or relieved about that. But Benjamin Graham believed, instead, that you should train yourself to feel worried about such events.
At this moment, consulting Mr. Graham’s wisdom is especially fitting. Sixty years ago, on May 25, 1949, the founder of financial analysis published his book, “The Intelligent Investor,” in whose honor this column is named. And today the market seems to be in just the kind of mood that would have worried Mr. Graham: a jittery optimism, an insecure and almost desperate need to believe that the worst is over.
You can’t turn off your feelings, of course. But you can, and should, turn them inside out.
Stocks have suddenly become more expensive to accumulate. Since March, according to data from Robert Shiller of Yale, the price/earnings ratio of the S&P 500 index has jumped from 13.1 to 15.5. That’s the sharpest, fastest rise in almost a quarter-century. (As Graham suggested, Prof. Shiller uses a 10-year average P/E ratio, adjusted for inflation.)
Over the course of 10 weeks, stocks have moved from the edge of the bargain bin to the full-price rack. So, unless you are retired and living off your investments, you shouldn’t be celebrating, you should be worrying.
Mr. Graham worked diligently to resist being swept up in the mood swings of “Mr. Market” — his metaphor for the collective mind of investors, euphoric when stocks go up and miserable when they go down.
In an autobiographical sketch, Mr. Graham wrote that he “embraced stoicism as a gospel sent to him from heaven.” Among the main components of his “internal equipment,” he also said, were a “certain aloofness” and “unruffled serenity.”
Mr. Graham’s last wife described him as “humane, but not human.” I asked his son, Benjamin Graham Jr., what that meant. “His mind was elsewhere, and he did have a little difficulty in relating to others,” “Buz” Graham said of his father. “He was always internally multitasking. Maybe people who go into investing are especially well-suited for it if they have that distance or detachment.”
Mr. Graham’s immersion in literature, mathematics and philosophy, he once remarked, helped him view the markets “from the standpoint of eternity, rather than day-to-day.”
Perhaps as a result, he almost invariably read the enthusiasm of others as a yellow caution light, and he took their misery as a sign of hope.
His knack for inverting emotions helped him see when markets had run to extremes. In late 1945, as the market was rising 36%, he warned investors to cut back on stocks; the next year, the market fell 8%. As stocks took off in 1958-59, Mr. Graham was again pessimistic; years of jagged returns followed. In late 1971, he counseled caution, just before the worst bear market in decades hit.
In the depths of that crash, near the end of 1974, Mr. Graham gave a speech in which he correctly forecast a period of “many years” in which “stock prices may languish.”
Then he startled his listeners by pointing out this was good news, not bad: “The true investor would be pleased, rather than discouraged, at the prospect of investing his new savings on very satisfactory terms.” Mr. Graham added a more startling note: Investors would be “enviably fortunate” to benefit from the “advantages” of a long bear market.
Today, it has become trendy to declare that “buy and hold is dead.” Some critics regard dollar-cost averaging, or automatically investing a fixed amount every month, as foolish.
Asked if dollar-cost averaging could ensure long-term success, Mr. Graham wrote in 1962: “Such a policy will pay off ultimately, regardless of when it is begun, provided that it is adhered to conscientiously and courageously under all intervening conditions.”
For that to be true, however, the dollar-cost averaging investor must “be a different sort of person from the rest of us … not subject to the alternations of exhilaration and deep gloom that have accompanied the gyrations of the stock market for generations past.”
“This,” Mr. Graham concluded, “I greatly doubt.”
He didn’t mean that no one can resist being swept up in the gyrating emotions of the crowd. He meant that few people can. To be an intelligent investor, you must cultivate what Mr. Graham called “firmness of character” — the ability to keep your own emotional counsel.
Above all, that means resisting the contagion of Mr. Market’s enthusiasm when stocks are suddenly no longer cheap.