Burton Malkiel

  • 08 Dec
    A Random Walk Down Wall Street

    A Random Walk Down Wall Street

    • According to Burton Malkiel, both technical and fundamental analysis are futile.
    • You might agree or disagree, but there are extremely valuable investing gems in his book.
    • There is something more important than trying to beat the market.



    Introduction

    “Obsessing over stock charts puts holes in investors’ shoes and yachts in brokers’ docks.”

    One of the best books about stocks is Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street. It’s a book you should definitely read, if you haven’t already, as it gives a great representation of how Wall Street works over the long term and describes many stock market bubbles, stock valuations through time, the firm foundation theory and the castle in the air theory, and it dismantles technical analysis and fundamental analysis.

    Malkiel is strongly in favor of diversification, index funds, proper asset allocation, risk and long term investing, but the biggest value you can get from reading his book is the common sense related to personal investing and how the risk of investing is related to your personal financial situation and financial goals, not so much the stock market if you avoid doing stupid things.

    Let’s dig into some interesting concepts Malkiel shares and see how they apply to the current market environment.

    Is The Stock Market A Random Walk?

    The main point of the random walk theory is that short term stock price movements can’t be predicted by looking at past price movements as there is no correlation between what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future.

    The concept of a random walk is extremely difficult to grasp because it is in our human nature to attach a pattern and simplify the environment we operate in, a concept called statistical illusion. If we take a look at the S&P 500, we can definitely spot some trends and patterns.

    Figure 1: S&P 500 in the last 10 years. Source: Macro Trends.

    However, there aren’t any. The more historical data you use, the more you will see that there is no way of predicting what will happen next. Malkiel uses the following figure to show how a random walk can look.

    Figure 2: A pattern created by a coin toss. Source: Malkiel.



    The pattern of the S&P 500 isn’t much different than the pattern derived from a coin toss. So whenever you think you might be onto something, remember that a reversal is always around the corner and one short but strong bear market can erase gains that took a decade to build.

    After dismissing technical analysis, let’s see what Malkiel has to say about fundamental analysis.

    Malkiel and Cragg conducted a survey of Wall Street’s top analysts and found that they simply fail at accurately predicting earnings in every single industry both in the one-year and five-year periods. Other researchers like Sandretto and Milkrishnamurthi have reached similar conclusions.

    The book also includes a lengthy discussion about how trying to beat the market is futile. I could argue on that with value investing as it has proven profitable in the very long term. However, even value investing is on shaky grounds given the current accommodative monetary policies which are again a random walk as it was impossible to predict such a scenario 10 years ago. Malkiel argues that value investing did underperform in the 1990s and therefore it is again impossible to know whether past outperformance will replicate itself into the future. You may agree or disagree with Malkiel, but there is some extremely valuable information in his book.

    The Value Of Common Sense Shared By Malkiel

    I find the biggest value in Malkiel’s book is the common sense, which is extremely important in our investing life-cycle. I’ll share a few examples here. Let’s start with inflation.

    Most investors focus on the inflation rate measured by the consumer price index, but that rate has little meaning for an individual and you should think about how to protect your wealth from inflation even if it doesn’t seem important now when inflation is below 2%. The following figure will show how different items are differently impacted by inflation, so it all depends on what you want to buy in the future. If you want to retire on Hershey bars, you should worry.

    Figure 3: Inflation is different and, again, personal. Source: Malkiel.

    Another important factor is proper asset allocation which starts with proper diversification. Malkiel shows how important it is to be well diversified internationally and to rebalance accordingly through time. A portfolio of 20 well diversified international stocks (including U.S. stocks) leads to the same returns with lower risk.

    Figure 4: International diversification leads to lower risk. Source: Malkiel.



    The third Malkiel concept I want to touch on here is risk and age. A young person that has the best earning years ahead of them can afford to take higher risks as the increased future salaries can cover for eventual portfolio declines and even take advantage of lower prices and consequently higher dividend yields. A person close to or in retirement can’t take the risk of a lost stock market decade or any kind of potential portfolio decline.

    Conclusion

    Reading Malkiel’s book leads to an intriguing discussion with oneself, especially if you try to beat the market with a certain technique. However, I believe A Random Walk Down Wall Street is an essential read for anyone who owns any kind of investment vehicle.

    I might not totally agree with what Malkiel is saying, but I’m still young and can take a lot of risk as he would say. Nevertheless, where I agree with Malkiel is that investing is and always will be a personal issue.

    I would build on Malkiel’s work by saying that beating the market is irrelevant. What is relevant is that your investments, their risk and reward, are related to your personal financial life cycle goals. Malkiel’s book is an essential read for determining the relation between the risk reward of your investment strategies and your life goals.

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