Book Reviews
Review of ‘A wealth of Common Sense’
Keep things simple, avoid mistakes and invest for the long term
 
Ben Carlson has spent long years managing institutional portfolios for endowments, foundations and pension plans. He also runs the popular blog www.awealthofcommonsense.com. The blog is superb and this book has become a best-seller on Amazon. Carlson is the latest in the camp of investment practitioners who believe in keeping things simple and straight. The subtitle of the book is apt: ‘Why simplicity triumphs complexity in any investment plan’. As Carlson writes, “Conventional gives you much better return than exotic. Long-term process is more important than short-term outcomes. And perspective goes much further than tactics.” The most misunderstood part of investing is that while financial markets are “complex, emergent, adaptive systems,” as wonderfully explained in 20/20 Money by Michael Hanson (reviewed in Moneylife), to create wealth, you need to keep things simple and, indeed, stay away from complex strategies. 
 
This is nothing new. For more than 100 years, ever since the stock markets started getting more organised, successful experts have pointed out the merits of simplicity. Phil Fisher, a successful investor and contemporary of Benjamin Graham, wrote a book in 1975 titled Conservative Investors Sleep Well. Warren Buffett has made money from a variety of products and special situations but his wealth was primarily created from companies selling everyday products like soft drinks (Coca Cola), fast food (McDonald’s) and shaving products (Gillette). He has become world’s richest man by keeping things ridiculously simple. But, as Carlson writes, “complexity tends to be the default option that gets used to persuade investors to buy unnecessary investment products while the vast majority of people really just need to understand more conventional options to succeed.”
 
The book has nine chapters. The first deals with the individual investor and his competitive advantage—or disadvantage—versus the institutional investor. I have a major disagreement with this. Carlson says don’t try to beat the professionals at their own game. But no investor is ever in competition with another investor. He is always in competition with himself and has all the behavioural biases all humans suffer from, including herding, loss-aversion, optimism, confirmation and so on. On the other side, professional investors have been found to make gross errors of judgement, time and again. The average mutual fund cannot beat the market averages in the United States. In India, small investors, who have avoided short-termism and stuck to quality stocks, have done very well for themselves. Investing is not a competitive sport. 
 
The subsequent chapters cover: Negative Knowledge and the Traits Required To Be a Successful Investor; Defining Market and Portfolio Risk; Market Myths and Market History; Defining Your Investment Philosophy; Behavior on Wall Street; Asset Allocation; A Comprehensive Investment Plan and Financial Professionals. All these chapters are extremely useful and take investors through the essentials of investing. 
 
The only issue I have is: What does this book offer which other books haven’t? To learn of mistakes like ‘looking to get rich in a hurry’ or ‘not having a plan in place’ or ‘going with the herd’ or ‘focusing exclusively on the short term’ are not exactly new. The chapter on market myths and market history offers “caveats, counter-intuitive results and no easy answers over the short to intermediate term. Over the long term, the markets are more consistent, but it requires a great deal of patience and discipline to remain a long-term investor when short-term instincts take over.” This should sound familiar to anyone who has read even a couple of classics on investing or a few good blogs.
 
The chapter on investing philosophy tells you to do systematic investing, choose low-cost funds and stay disciplined. How rare is all this? From marketing literature of mutual funds to investment blogs that have mushroomed, this is, after all, the main mantra of everyone. A chapter on behaviour on the Wall Street cannot possibly cover new ground, given that awareness about this sordid facet of investing is widespread, appearing many times in films and popular television serials. 
 
I am, therefore, quite surprised by the rave reviews the book has got from hard-core practitioners like Wesley Gray who has done new research in value investing (his co-authored book, Quantitative Value, has been reviewed in Moneylife) or from Josh Brown, author of bestselling book Backstage Wall Street. It would be better if you read these two writers and also the books of Ken Fisher (all reviewed in Moneylife) and Dr William Bernstein. 

User

COMMENTS

Abhijit Joshi

1 year ago

Debashish,

Thanks for informing about this book. Your insights into wealth creation are truly helpful to all the readers.

Just something interesting discussion for all Moneylife community.
Warren Buffett's not so well known dimension is his insurance business, which he, on more than one occasion, has pointed out as the core to his strategy.If not mistaken from 1970s. It's the insurance float which provides him interest free money to buy entire businesses & open up income streams to buy more businesses / listed stocks in future. The scale of insurance floats affords him to be content with very reasonable returns & insulates from vagaries of stock markets. Its becoming like a rolling ice ball. He hasn't become this wealthy just by investing in listed securities, although that was starting point. Presently they contribute not so significant portion of Berkshire Hathaway's portfolio.

Regards

Abhijit

A Passion for Teaching
Providing learning opportunities in the most modern way, even in backward areas, is the aim of eVidyaloka
 
In 2011, Satish and Venkat, two employees of Microsoft, decided to do something about improving the quality of education in the Indian public school system. Their passion, to use technology to solve social challenges and empower the community as a whole, resulted in the setting up of eVidyaloka, a not-for-profit organisation. 
 
eVidyaloka focuses on working with local communities to own the digital classrooms, inspiring and empowering volunteers to contribute from wherever they are, by providing standardised lesson plans and teaching aids for a consistent learning experience for children. 
 
The eVidyaloka model brings people with passion together from across the globe, leveraging the power of technology, and enables access to high-quality teachers for children in remote villages of India. It is focused on children in the age group of 10-14 years (6th to 8th grade), delivering live interactive classes in the local medium, through a powerful partner ecosystem. eVidyaloka’s objective is to enable every child to understand and apply the concepts, by ensuring accessibility and affordability of high-quality teachers and teaching resources. It is a delivery model developed with a strong conviction in connecting people through technology which is scalable, replicable and sustainable.
 
The respective state board curriculum is being taught by the volunteer teachers, using rich digital media content like videos, visual flows, pictures, activities, etc. This helps the child to visualise and understand complex concepts. It also inspires the child to participate in the teaching-learning process with a higher level of involvement.
 
Today, 25 centres are operational on ‘My eVidyaloka’, across three states (Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) through over 180 teachers. The teachers work across 76 cities in 13 countries delivering quality education in regional languages to over 1,200 children in India. An open content platform, WikiVidya, is being promoted, where volunteers build standardised lesson plans in vernacular languages and aggregate the digital resources and aids for a consistent learning experience for children. 
 
In the academic year 2015-16, eVidyaloka plans to establish a scalable, replicable and sustainable service delivery platform aimed at reaching 2,500 children across 50 villages in five states (adding Karnataka and Telangana). It hopes to have over 400 active volunteer teachers. WikiVidya has the potential to reach one million teachers in India. eVidyaloka’s long-term plan is to mobilise 100,000 volunteer teachers in the next 10 years with a potential to change the lives of 1.5 million children. The online classes happen in a digital classroom through a variety of communication technologies—wired broadband, WiMax, 3G mobile and smart routers. 
 
Over 70% of the volunteer teachers involved are qualified professionals in various fields, post-doctorates, home-makers, retired teachers, graduate students, PhD students and working professionals in India and abroad. One of the key challenges is availability of uninterrupted power supply; this has been addressed by providing a captive UPS unit for the digital classroom. Over the next two years, eVidyaloka’s ambition is to expand from the current reach of 50 villages to over 200 villages in seven to eight states and, eventually, cover the entire country. “What sustains us is the passion of the participating volunteers and what continues to inspire is the enthusiasm of the children to learn,” says Venkat. 
 
The NGO’s website provides detailed guidelines for volunteering or donating towards its activities. Do take a look.
 

eVidyaloka Trust

608, 27th Main, 2nd Stage,
BTM Layout, Bengaluru 
Karnataka 560076
Phone: +91 080 40903939

 

User

COMMENTS

Meenal Mamdani

1 year ago

This is incredible. I salute the innovation and dedication of these individuals.
Every state has retirees who can add meaning to their life by volunteering just a few hours a day. If they own a computer, they need not even step outside the house to do this work.
I sincerely hope that this effort spreads to all states, particularly the poorest.

Sell Old Tax-free Bonds for New?
We do not think a saver should explore the avenue of arbitrage ‘opportunity’
 
Indian Railways Finance Corporation (IRFC), Housing & Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) and National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) will be in the market in the next few months with issues of tax-free bonds. The issue size will be four to five times the issues of National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), Power Finance Corporation (PFC) and Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) in the past two months.
 
It is reported that some investors are selling the tax-free bonds which they subscribed to in 2012-13 and 2013-14, to buy new tax-free bonds which will be offered in December and beyond. 
 
Investment experts are quoted as backing this action, to benefit from the arbitrage opportunity. This ‘opportunity’ is assumed on the basis of reports quoting yields on old tax-free bonds of around 6.85%-7.1% while the expected coupon of new tax-free bonds may be 7.25%-7.5%. So there may be an arbitrage opportunity of about 50 basis points (bps). Is it worth chasing the arbitrage? We do not think a saver should explore this avenue.
 
First, the coupon on tax-free bond issues in 2012-13 was nearly 8% per annum; on some issues in 2013-14, it crossed 9%pa. Clearly, for savers, the coupon on the bonds they possess will certainly be more than the forthcoming tax-free bonds. 
 
A long-term saver should hold on to bonds that have a better coupon. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Second, there are buy & sell spreads in the rates quoted, based on the traded volume, due to which your arbitrage opportunity may reduce—or even vanish. There will also be a broker commission which can kill the ‘opportunity’. 
 
Third, selling the existing bonds which have a better coupon rate will result in capital gains and, hence, the saver will need to worry about the taxation. The recent tax-free bond issues got only 15%-20% allotment. The new ones are larger issues and, hence, better chances for full allotment. But is it worth it? A saver holding bonds for long-term benefits should not sell it for the ‘opportunity’.
 

User

COMMENTS

Balraj Amaravadi

1 year ago

Is this an opportunity to buy these old 2013-14 bonds(9%)? for long term.

REPLY

raj pradhan

In Reply to Balraj Amaravadi 1 year ago

For bonds in secondary market do not look at coupon (9% or anything). It is irrelevant. Yield to maturity (YTM) will give correct information about what returns you can get if you hold the bonds you purchase in secondary market till maturity.

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