A Conversation with Benjamin Graham
Financial Analysts Journal - 1976
In the light of your 60-odd years of experience in Wall Street what is your overall view
of common stocks?
Common stocks have one important characteristics and one important speculative
characteristic. Their investment value and average market price tend to increase
irregularly but persistently over the decades, as their net worth builds up through the
reinvestment of undistributed earnings--incidentally, with no clear-cut plus or minus
response to inflation. However, most of the time common stocks are subject to irrational
and excessive price fluctuations in both directions, as the consequence of the ingrained
tendency of most people to speculate or gamble--i.e., to give way to hope, fear and greed.
What is your view of Wall Street as a financial institution?
A highly unfavorable--even a cynical--one. The Stock Exchanges appear to me chiefly as
a John Bunyan type of Vanity Fair, or a Falstaffian joke, that frequently degenerates into a
madhouse--"a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The stock market
resembles a huge laundry in which institutions take in large blocks of each other's
washing--nowadays to the tune of 30 million shares a day--without true rhyme or reason.
But technologically it is remarkably well-organized.
What is your view of the financial community as a whole?
Most of the stockbrokers, financial analysts, investment advisers, etc., are above average
in intelligence, business honesty and sincerity. But they lack adequate experience with all
types of security markets and an overall understanding of common stocks--of what I call
"the nature of the beast." They tend to take the market and themselves too seriously. They
spend a large part of their time trying, valiantly and ineffectively, to do things they can't
What sort of things, for example?
To forecast short- and long-term changes in the economy, and in the price level of
common stocks, to select the most promising industry groups and individual issues--
generally for the near-term future.
Can the average manager of institutional funds obtain better results than the Dow
Jones Industrial Average or the Standard & Poor's Index over the years?
No. In effect, that would mean that the stock market experts as a whole could beat
themselves--a logical contradiction.
Do you think, therefore, that the average institutional client should be content with the
DJIA results or the equivalent?
Yes. Not only that, but I think they should require approximately such results over, say, a
moving five-year average period as a condition for paying standard management fees to
advisors and the like.
What about the objection made against so-called index funds that different investors
have different requirements?
At bottom that is only a convenient cliche or alibi to justify the mediocre record of the
past. All investors want good results from their investments, and are entitled to them to
the extent that they are actually obtainable. I see no reason why they should be content
with results inferior to those of an indexed fund or pay standard fees for such inferior
Turning now to individual investors, do you think that they are at a disadvantage
compared with the institutions, because of the latter's huge resources, superior
facilities for obtaining information, etc.?
On the contrary, the typical investor has a great advantage over the large institutions.
Chiefly because these institutions have a relatively small field of common stocks to
choose from--say 300 to 400 huge corporations--and they are constrained more or less to
concentrate their research and decisions on this much over-analyzed group. By contrast,
most individuals can choose at any time among some 3000 issues listed in the Standard &
Poor's Monthly Stock Guide. Following a wide variety of approaches and preferences, the
individual investor should at all times be able to locate at least one per cent of the total
list--say, 30 issues or more--that offer attractive buying opportunities.
What general rules would you offer the individual investor for his investment policy
over the years?
Let me suggest three such rules: (1) The individual investor should act consistently as an
investor and not as a speculator. This means, in sum, that he should be able to justify
every purchase he makes and each price he pays by impersonal, objective reasoning that
satisfies him that he is getting more than his money's worth for his purchase--in other
words, that he has a margin of safety, in value terms, to protect his commitment. (2) The
investor should have a definite selling policy for all his common stock commitments,
corresponding to his buying techniques. Typically, he should set a reasonable profit
objective on each purchase--say 50 to 100 per cent--and a maximum holding period for
this objective to be realized--say, two to three years. Purchases not realizing the gain
objective at the end of the holding period should be sold out at the market. (3) Finally, the
investor should always have a minimum percentage of his total portfolio in common
stocks and a minimum percentage in bond equivalents. I recommend at least 25 per cent
of the total at all times in each category. A good case can be made for a consistent 50-50
division here, with adjustments for changes in the market level. This means the investor
would switch some of his stocks into bonds on significant rises of the market level, and
vice-versa when the market declines. I would suggest, in general, an average seven- or
eight-year maturity for his bond holdings.
In selecting the common stock portfolio, do you advise careful study of and selectivity
among different issues?
In general, no. I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in
order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years
ago, when our textbook "Graham and Dodd" was first published; but the situation has
changed a great deal since then. In the old days any well-trained security analyst could do
a good professional job of selecting undervalued issues through detailed studies; but in
the light of the enormous amount of research now being carried on, I doubt whether in
most cases such extensive efforts will generate sufficiently superior selections to justify
their cost. To that very limited extent I'm on the side of the "efficient market" school of
thought now generally accepted by the professors.
What general approach to portfolio formation do you advocate?
Essentially, a highly simplified one that applies a single criteria or perhaps two criteria to
the price to assure that full value is present and that relies for its results on the
performance of the portfolio as a whole--i.e., on the group results--rather than on the
expectations for individual issues.
Can you indicate concretely how an individual investor should create and maintain his
common stock portfolio?
I can give two examples of my suggested approach to this problem. One appears severely
limited in its application, but we found it almost unfailingly dependable and satisfactory
in 30-odd years of managing moderate-sized investment funds. The second represents a
great deal of new thinking and research on our part in recent years. It is much wider in its
application than the first one, but it combines the three virtues of sound logic, simplicity
of application, and an extraordinarily good performance record, assuming--contrary to
fact--that it had actually been followed as now formulated over the past 50 years--from
1925 to 1975.
Some details, please, on your two recommended approaches.
My first, more limited, technique confines itself to the purchase of common stocks at less
than their working-capital value, or net-current-asset value, giving no weight to the plant
and other fixed assets, and deducting all liabilities in full from the current assets. We used
this approach extensively in managing investment funds, and over a 30-odd year period
we must have earned an average of some 20 per cent per year from this source. For a
while, however, after the mid-1950's, this brand of buying opportunity became very
scarce because of the pervasive bull market. But it has returned in quantity since the
1973-74 decline. In January 1976 we counted over 300 such issues in the Standard &
Poor's Stock Guide--about 10 per cent of the total. I consider it a foolproof method of
systematic investment--once again, not on the basis of individual results but in terms of
the expectable group outcome.
Finally, what is your other approach?
This is similar to the first in its underlying philosophy. It consists of buying groups of
stocks at less than their current or intrinsic value as indicated by one or more simple
criteria. The criterion I prefer is seven times the reported earnings for the past 12 months.
You can use others--such as a current dividend return above seven per cent or book value
more than 120 percent of price, etc. We are just finishing a performance study of these
approaches over the past half-century--1925-1975. They consistently show results of 15
per cent or better per annum, or twice the record of the DJIA for this long period. I have
every confidence in the threefold merit of this general method based on (a) sound logic,
(b) simplicity of application, and (c) an excellent supporting record. At bottom it is a
technique by which true investors can exploit the recurrent excessive optimism and
excessive apprehension of the speculative public.
Stocks are simple. All you do is buy shares in a great business for less than the business is intrinsically worth, with management of the highest integrity and ability. Then you own those shares forever. I will tell you how to become rich. Close the doors. Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful.
January 11, 2010
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