Tale of two investors

Benj Gallander and Ben Stadelmann
Friday, March 24, 2006

In a previous column, a personal story was told about how a contrarian investing sensibility was forged during a high-school stock-picking contest. The realization that “tried and true” blue-chip stocks made for mediocre results did more than decide what style of investments would be chosen to build future wealth; it also provided a foundation for looking critically at other matters of life and questioning the conventional wisdom.

Two recent episodes got one of us pondering again. The first was a heartfelt telephone call we heard on a popular financial television program. The caller was eager to play the markets, but alas, he and his wife had a mortgage and three children, and so had little capital to invest. What could they do? The host gave the pat answer of choosing mutual funds with low minimums and monthly purchase programs.

The second incident was a chat with a woman at a friend’s birthday party. She fervently proclaimed that the contrarian label suited her well. She was single, had decided not to have any children, and her ambition was to develop a meaningful career. While out in the business world cracking glass ceilings, she had also developed her investing acumen. She had just sold her house in Toronto for a big gain.

“We’re at the top of the housing market,” was her reasoning, and she refused to fill up the place with “stuff.” No weekend sprees to Ikea or Pottery Barn for her. She now rented a condo, as her research proved there was a large glut. No rush to buy. Stunningly, the original down payment for the house was made from the very timely and profitable sale of Bre-X shares!

These two personal situations are very different, but so, too, was the way in which they were approached. The TV-show caller didn’t seem to realize that, with a house and children, he had already made two large “investments” for the future. And, despite what most middle-class folks assume, both are non-obligatory.

Carrying a house sucks cash flow into mortgage payments, property taxes, insurance and maintenance costs. Historically, buying a house has generally delivered a decent return on capital, but a lot depends on entry points, interest rates and location. Factoring these in, there is no guarantee of a large positive return over time. But if one can afford it, there are large intangible returns from creating an enjoyable living space of one’s own.

As for children, the personal returns are virtually all in the intangible category. And make no mistake, as wonderful as they are, the little nippers are expensive. How often have you heard anyone say, “Gee, I thought it would cost a lot more to raise kids.”

On the other side of the coin, remaining child-free is also a perfectly acceptable choice. Organizations like No Kidding, Population Connection and Planned Parenthood provide balance to the biological imperative when considering the idea of adding a couple of more to an already overcrowded planet. As comedian Bill Maher quipped, “The world doesn’t need your legacy.”

As for the minimalist professional, she likes to live below her means. In this day and age, that is a strong contrarian principle, no matter what level of income.

Author David Chilton has sold two million copies of The Wealthy Barber, a thin, folksy manual on personal savings that contains what passed for common sense a generation or two ago.

It seems that Mr. Chilton is paddling upstream. Savings rates are subterranean, while the level of personal debt climbs to historic highs. Much of the frivolity comes from conspicuous consumption of “positional goods” — i.e., scarce luxuries that are valued for the simple reason that few can enjoy them.

Mind you, vanity and insecurity can generate fat margins for retailers. Tiffany & Co. offers sparkly baubles, not the least of which is a 10-year total return of 481 percent on its stock. Investors have recognized that as society becomes more stratified, with a “winner-take-all” mentality, high-end retail can do very well.

For a contrarian, price is what you pay and value is what you get. The best attribute of money is that it can buy freedom — another intangible. You generate no liens when you’re happy living below your means.