Monday, October 29, 2018

Minimalism, Decluttering and Portfolio Concentration

According to Wikipedia, Minimalism in art began in the 1960s and the 1970s when a group of artists decided to protray art using the "Less Is More" concept. In New York's Museum of Modern Art, we can see a section dedicated to minimalism. One of the famed artists Robert Ryman painted only with white. He is considered as one of the fathers of minimalist art today.

Robert Ryman's celebrated work

Seriously, I could paint this. My 11-year-old son probably could do better. But I guess it is about articulating the idea, being the first and being able to put in into everyone's mind that less is really more. And so, after a few decades, the minimalism in lifestyle movement took off and moved into our lives. It started with a Japanese lady - Kondo Marie. She is the Queen of Decluttering in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Kondo's stroke of genius was understanding that most people would not understand why Robert Ryman became a celebrated artist and why minimalism would not work for most people, at first. So she introduced the concept of decluttering. Decluttering is a way to manage our relationships with our stuff. In today's world of ultra-consumerism, we have more stuff than we have space to store them. Sometimes, we don't even have time to use them. We buy tonnes of stuff we don't need and we cluttered up our homes and our minds. 

Decluttering is Kondo's way to simplify. But it is actually also a half step to minimalism.  She put forward a very simply idea: for every item in our possession, we should hold it in our hands and search our feelings thoroughly, we should know whether we actually need it. If we don't, then we say goodbye, trash it and declutter. When we are done if the hundreds or thousands of items in our homes, we should feel refreshed and reborn, ready for a new life.

Kondo Marie

And she's right. So, people started decluttering and some people took it all the way. That was the start of the minimalist lifestyle. Some people managed to reduce their entire possession down to 50-100 items. They use the same soap to wash their clothes, their dishes and themselves. This is serious and minimalism has serious implications. If the majority of people started living this way, then we can see many companies being affected. Consumer names, furniture makers, even Apple. 

But that's perhaps years down the road. Apple should be the most valuable company in the world for the foreseeable future. Even after the stock is down 20%.

The important applicable concept of minimalism to portfolio is actually portfolio concentration. This is a perennial topic that deserved more discussion since I probably last wrote about this 11 years ago in a short post: Diversification or Diworsification. After a decade or so, I guess I found my own answer. In short, the answer is to concentrate to the point where you are comfortable. So this is different for everyone. 

Warren Buffett gave his answer: imagine you only have 20 bullets, how would you invest? That's his answer and since he is the best investor the world has ever seen, maybe the answer is very close to the right answer for most people. The answer could be near having 20 stocks, or 20 investments and make sure you studied them really well and know with very high probability that they would work. 

This right answer also depends on a few things so it's important to know them. For most laypersons, investing is a part-time hobby, so it really takes a lot and a long time to learn which are the right 20 names, so maybe for them, even Buffett's ideal answer might not be for them. If that is so, then it could 20 ideas with a mixture of ETFs and low risk investments like bonds or blue chips rather than 20 individual stock names. Also it's about concentration is these names. Unless you are really, really, really sure, try not putting 50% of your entire net worth into one stock. Warren Buffett did put 30% of his net worth into Berkshire Hathaway in the 1962-1964 after the original owner went back on a promise to pay Buffett the right amount in a tender offer. But Buffett was really, really, really sure. (Of course there is also a twist to this story, which shall be revealed at the end of this post.)

Project 333

In the world of decluttering, another number came up. It's 33 from this movement called Project 333. This project came about for female minimalists. It was a challenge to wear only the same 33 items for 3 months. I looked at this and thought, "Maybe I could do it if I really tried." But I truly admired the ladies who did this and succeeded. I looked at my wife's wardrobe... She probably needs Project 999: wearing 99 items for 9 days? Still, I love her the way she is. We all do right?

Okay, so for portfolios, the right answer is probably 20-30 different ideas, stocks, names. In portfolio management, we also know that diversification is achieved with more than 30 names. This is where unsystematic risks (i.e. risks due to individual names blowing up) are fully reduced and what's left would be systemic risks which no one can avoid (i.e. like global markets falling together) as long as you want to earn market returns (and not fixed deposit returns).

As mentioned, there are some investors who believe this could be 10-15 and not 20-30 and they have actually achieved that. Some are activists, which is understandable since you cannot be active and join the boards of 30 companies trying to push them all to transform. On the other hand, there are investors who hold hundreds if not thousands of names. Peter Lynch and Ben Graham, the father of value investing, are famous for holding very diversified portfolios. I believe that on this spectrum, these gurus would still have the 10, 15, 20 or 30 names that they believe will deliver the bulk of the returns. But they keep the tail to find the 10 baggers or to hold on for other reasons (sentimental ones maybe? Like why I still hold dogs like Singtel and Keppel).

Personally, I belong to the latter. I have 60 odd names and I am actively trying to push up the best 20 names I think should deliver the bulk of the returns in my portfolio. The top names today are companies that have strong business moats and high returns according to my models because they are so beaten down. The largest positions rarely hit 10% of my portfolio and that has worked for me. It is different for everyone, just as the extent of decluttering and minimalism is different for everyone.

So to end this post, let's just spell out some answers again: have as many names as you think is correct for you but also concentrate on the top 10, 15, 20 that will make the most impact. But be careful not have 1 or 2 names becoming so large (like 50%) that it overwhelms everything else. Although Buffett did bet the house on Berkshire, he made rather interesting confession some 45 years later. Here's the explanation from Wikipedia:

In 2010, Buffett claimed that purchasing Berkshire Hathaway was the biggest investment mistake he had ever made, and claimed that it had denied him compounded investment returns of about $200 billion over the subsequent 45 years. Buffett claimed that had he invested that money directly in insurance businesses instead of buying out Berkshire Hathaway (due to what he perceived as a slight by an individual), those investments would have paid off several hundredfold.

Hope this helps! Huat ah!

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