They call the stock market the great humiliator for a reason: No matter how clever you think you are, it has an endless capacity to make you look like an idiot.
Strategy Lab, which we founded five years ago and which we're powering down this month, provides a fine example of the market's capacity to embarrass. I can say that with confidence because I was the guy who launched the darn thing, back when I served as investment editor of this esteemed publication. I entered into the project with some strong expectations. The results promptly shot holes in my swaggering forecasts.
Strategy Lab set out to look at how four classic investing styles – value, growth, dividend and indexing strategies – would work in real time. Each of our expert investors started with $50,000 in hypothetical funds and invested in whichever securities they saw fit. We tracked their results to see how each of the four approaches worked in practice.
As someone who regards the market as a relatively efficient, hard-to-beat machine, I figured the four strategies would produce roughly similar results over time, clustering tightly around the index return. I announced my views rather loudly. Unfortunately – at least for me – that was not how it turned out.
Chris Umiastowski, a former Bay Street analyst, blew past the competition. His growth approach, which focused on innovative, disruptive companies with the potential for rapidly expanding revenues, quintupled his starting stake over five years. To be more precise, his initial stake of $50,000 in 2012 rocketed to $253,738 today. Thank you Facebook, Amazon, Google, Netflix and Tesla!
Our other contestants didn't come anywhere close to that result, but still achieved fine returns. Norm Rothery, a newsletter publisher and reformed physicist, nearly doubled his money using a value approach that looked for cheap stocks in a market in which such creatures are becoming increasingly rare. His nearly 95-per-cent gain was outstanding given the lacklustre performance of most value-oriented strategies in recent years.
Not far behind was John Heinzl, my Globe and Mail colleague and devout dividend collector, who achieved a total return of nearly 75 per cent. Meanwhile, Andrew Hallam, author of Millionaire Teacher, handicapped himself by deliberately constructing a balanced portfolio of index funds that included a substantial wallop of bonds. Largely because of his insistence on having a complete portfolio, rather than just stocks, he finished last, but still managed to gain nearly 48 per cent over the five years. Nothing wrong with that.
So what can we conclude from these results? The obvious takeaway would be to say that growth investing is the way to go and that we should all load up on technology companies. But I don't think that's quite right.
The market moves in multi-year cycles and the past five years have been unusually kind to tech companies. There's no assurance the next five years will prove so profitable to the sector – or, for that matter, that the market as a whole will continue its bull run.
A more robust conclusion is that it's vital to choose an investing strategy that suits you. What Strategy Lab demonstrates, more than anything else, is that it's possible for investors to make money – good money – in many different ways. The most important virtues are diversifying your portfolio, keeping costs low and sticking to a strategy through the inevitable ups and downs. Do all of that and the great humiliator turns into a generous friend.
What our four successful investors shared was a dedication to not doing stupid things: They didn't bet everything on one or two stocks; they didn't chase hot performers; they didn't trade frequently.
Each of them prospered by remaining loyal to their core style. To my eye, that's because each of them invested in a way that perfectly suited their personality and interests.
For instance, Chris, an engineer by training and an optimist by temperament, delights in learning about new technology and thinking through the potential ramifications.
One of the most valuable lessons he taught Strategy Lab readers was to get beyond the hype and evaluate growth companies with a reasoned, analytical approach. His columns offered a master class in how to put hard numbers on high hopes.
He also showed us that investing in technology companies requires the conviction to stick with good companies even if the stock price temporarily dives.
Finally, he demonstrated the importance of not putting all your eggs in one basket. While several of his picks shot to the moon, others – such as DragonWave and SolarCity – lost a big chunk of their value. Those flops would have rattled the nerves of a less diversified, less experienced investor.
Perhaps you don't share Chris's passion for technology and unflappable demeanour. If so, you might want to follow in the footsteps of one of our other Strategy Lab investors. The important thing is to know yourself and choose a well thought-out strategy that suits you.
And don't worry: While Strategy Lab may be closing down, each of our four investors will continue to appear regularly in Globe Investor. In fact, given the huge amount of reader interest in dividend investing, we intend to actually enhance John's coverage of that area, with a new, expanded portfolio and even more analysis of his picks. Join us as we embark on another adventure in investing. This time I'll keep my forecasts to myself.