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Investments Inc.

spacer January 2007

The brilliant writer C.S. Lewis stated, "The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is." Extrapolating from this, one would assume that sixty minutes 200 years ago would measure the same as today.

On one level, that is exactly correct; however, given technological change, the possibility of completing a task today dwarfs that of two centuries ago, to the point where, in some respects, an hour today is not the equal of an hour of yon.

Consider, for instance, that as recently as two decades ago it could easily take ten days to get a letter to Europe -- and that doesn't even take into account the writing. Now that email has replaced air mail, we can chat with a colleague on the continent in mere seconds (though it may sometimes be a good plan to wait just a moment before hitting that Send button -- the better to let one's emotions cool).

Not so long ago, calling long-distance to many locales was an ordeal -- today, we can connect effortlessly with all but a few points, and at a fraction of the cost. And it's apparently not enough for people to take calls at home or the office -- with cell phones and voice mail, it's very nearly impossible to be unreachable (much as one might enjoy being left with nothing but their own thoughts to occupy them). Although, judging by the numbers of people chattering as they drive or walk down the street, few feel they can afford to be unavailable.

The trick is to use and control technological advances like these, rather than be enslaved by them. For instance, a friend recently commented that she and some friends were venting about the ways in which today's time- and labour-saving gadgets seemed, in fact, to be complicating and constraining their lives.

Of course, technology has had a comprehensive impact on investing. Curious about a corporation? No need to phone or write the company for material; just send an email request -- and in most cases, you can download annual reports and financial data directly from the firm's website. Even more information, from a variety of perspectives, is just a Google search away.

(Kinda makes us wonder whatever happened to Ken Olsen, whose company brought out the minicomputer. In a 1977 address to the World Future Society, he said, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.")

But while the gathering of information is easier than ever, synthesizing it is not. The sheer volume of the data can in itself be overwhelming, and much of it generates more noise than harmony. Separating the relevant from the dross can be a challenge -- and a task that, ironically, takes more time than it used to.

Where once there were incisive, substantial, in-depth articles, today there is "content" -- designed to attract your attention quickly and direct your gaze to the vicinity of the accompanying advertising. Shorter and faster are the watchwords, because longer articles take time to read and, as a certain wise Benjamin said, "Time is money."

Our attempts to work within this New World have not always proven successful. Sometimes it has indeed felt as if we were moving too quickly. Just as it is possible in this "information age" to drown in data, it is also easier than ever before to pull the trigger rashly, without due diligence, on a purchase or sale -- just go to the broker's website and click, and the deal is done in a New York second.

Once the stock is purchased, many people use the Internet to track the price like a lemming in heat. This compresses time, catching one in the random noise surrounding the investment position and/or making it seem as if the market valuation is not moving quickly enough in a positive direction.

This overzealous focus tends to make one antsy to trade, when the optimum approach is the opposite: relax and ignore it for a while. It also makes it tougher to understand the nature of "real" investing, which does not depend on results after a week, month or even a year, but three, five and even ten years.

We cannot count the number of stocks in the portfolio that have done little of a positive nature for years, only to suddenly double or triple. Remember, a stock that takes seven years to double in value is generating an annual return of ten percent; if it doubles in five years, that's 14 percent per year. Either would beat the pants off of historical norms of both the market and other investments.

As this is a time for resolutions, our task in the days ahead will be to remember that while the times are changing, the job of critically assessing, evaluating and coming to conclusions should not. We want more synthesis of thought before the deal is pursued.

We know that research must be done, that haste can be waste, that there is a time value of money where having it sooner is better than later given present value. But the key in our minds is not to get sucked into the eddies of time. And to try to avoid the noise of explanation that accompanies every trading day.

Related to this, and fully relevant for investing, is that human psychology at its core level is not changing. People still swat the pendulum too far in one direction when the going is good and push it too far fro when the outlook takes on a bleakish hue. This allows for greater profits.

We also know that in the interrelationship of quality of life and time, time is more than money and it is better enjoyed in increments. As Theodor Seuss Geisel said,

How did it get so late so soon?
It's night before it's afternoon.
December is here before it's June.
My goodness, how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?

Within this elongated train of possibility, the manner of exploitation rests in the incisive words of Napoleon: "Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in."

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