Forever assets

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Forever assets.

Late last year I read about a woman who bought 100 Christmas presents for each of her three children. The accompanying photo showed the proud mother beside a shoulder-high pile of presents engulfing a large Christmas tree.

She noted the presents weren't expensive but she loved watching the joy on her kids' faces as they opened the multiple presents she'd purchased throughout the year.

I thought the image was an apt metaphor for today's easy-come-easy-go, transaction-oriented society. Little is valued because 'things' are so plentiful and can easily be replaced or upgraded to a better, shinier version.

My great-grandparents would be horrified; they would remember the days of scrimping and saving all year (or longer) to buy that special something — a something treasured since it was so hard to come by.

It's a similar story with investment markets. Gone are the days where people treasure their investments as long term assets to be owned 'forever'.

Early in my career, I met people who had inherited portfolios from parents and grandparents. Their owners were often reluctant to sell them 'because Granddad bought them and they're a legacy'.

Shares were owned for capital gain that would accrue over years or decades. The certificates were kept in bottom drawers, probably with the family silver and other treasures.

Imagine if this old-fashioned approach prevailed today. Would you build a different investment portfolio if you were leaving it to your children and grandchildren as a long-lasting legacy?

Warren Buffett supports this notion, suggesting we should only buy something we'd be perfectly happy to hold if the markets shut down for 10 years.

What would investing be like if, unlike the generous Christmas mum, we couldn't buy and sell readily? 

We would probably adopt the mindset of a private company owner. We'd think long and hard about each investment before committing to it. We'd have to be certain of what we were doing; there'd be no 'taking a punt' on anything.

Any consideration of adding to or reducing our holding would take account of the likely long term future for our company.

We might consider diversifying but we'd quickly realise how difficult it is to keep up with a bunch of private companies. Without a public market, we wouldn't have the same access to information and would have to rely on management keeping us up to date with company goings-on.

We'd learn to take economic and political cycles in our stride. As for daily changes in the value of our businesses, they'd be irrelevant.

There would potentially be great fortunes made and lost.

If we were adept at identifying a profitable business run by a talented management team, we could find ourselves with an increasingly valuable investment over time. The opposite could also be true, with some investors potentially duped by a flimsy idea or an unscrupulous management team.

Of course, this is a hypothetical and unlikely exercise as liquidity is plentiful and capital flows freely.

But it is nevertheless useful to think about what could go wrong, before it does. Liquidity and the ability to sell can disappear quickly in a market panic.

Before making any investment ask yourself: would I be happy to own this for the next 10 years? And is this investment likely to grow in value over time, so it deserves a place next to my other treasured assets?

One or two great investments that stand the test of time must surely beat 100 brightly wrapped presents that may not even make it to Boxing Day.


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