Six key investment lessons – from the finance chiefs who really know!

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As the children across Britain sharpen their pencils and go back to school, there are some financial lessons that their parents can learn too. 

We asked Britain’s foremost investment managers to share the most important ones they’ve learnt – and how they’ve put them into practice.

Lesson One: Too much debt just makes companies vulnerable

Early mistakes have led to caution for Richard de Lisle, who manages the VT De Lisle America Fund. He began his investment journey at just 16, only to lose his hard-earned pocket money on a risky bet.

‘In the spring of 1974, I had saved £80 from my newspaper rounds,’ he recalls. ‘My interest in the stock market came from watching my father’s sadness at losing money in his shares while my auntie was doing very nicely following tips in her paper, The Telegraph, with a legacy from her father from the 1950s. I thought the newspapers could make a difference. They did.

‘I read everything on my paper rounds and did well from Patrick Sergeant in the Daily Mail and Jim Slater in The Telegraph. Those were my favourites. Yes, the Mail had a hand in my career.

‘The FT 30 had fallen more than half in two years. Stock prices were so low that I was seduced by the glamorous Court Line [a former shipping company that became a holiday provider]. It was leading the new package holiday boom, opening up the Spanish Costas to people who’d never been abroad before.’

Despite his tender years, De Lisle even looked at the valuation, including the price-earnings ratio, which shows how much profit a company is making per share. As a rule of thumb, the lower the ratio, the cheaper the company.

‘Its P/E ratio was under four; the yield was 17 per cent. What could go wrong?’ De Lisle asks.

Quite a lot, it turns out.

‘Five months later, Court Line went bust because of too much debt and I lost all my hard-earned cash. My friend’s father, who owned the fish and chip shop, did much better. He put everything he had into five blue-chip companies and more than doubled his money in six weeks.

‘Warren Buffett says that debt just speeds things up and so it does. Today we run a value-based fund. While we like cheap, we don’t like debt. Lesson learned.’

Lesson Two: You’re almost always wrong before you are right

For Laurence Hulse, who manages UK smaller companies’ specialist Onward Opportunities, an internship at Barclays Capital when he was 18 brought a lesson he has lived by all his life.

‘You’re almost always wrong before you are right. This was one of the first ‘lessons’ I was ever taught,’ Hulse says. During his time at Barclays under revered equity trader Howard Spooner, Hulse learned that because you do not usually time the market perfectly, your investment is likely to fall at first. ‘Other than in the unlikely event when you buy at the very lowest price or sell at the very highest price to the penny, you have got to be prepared to be wrong initially,’ Hulse says.

He adds that when you buy a share and it falls to start with or sell a share only to see the price rise, you ‘look and feel wrong’ even though you may well have made the right call in the long term.

As a result of this lesson, he has learned not to make sudden swerves in his trading. ‘We very rarely trade into or out of a company in one transaction, as to do so would be to assume you have timed things perfectly.’

Lesson Three: Work out whether you are investing…or gambling

John Husselbee, head of multi-asset at LionTrust, learned many of his investment lessons from his family. ‘My father taught me that whenever speculating at the racecourse or a casino, work out beforehand how much money you are prepared to lose betting, then put that amount in a separate pocket to treat as a sunk cost. Whatever is left in that pocket at the end of the day is your good fortune. However, if you have bad luck and your pocket is empty, never add to it – just walk away,’ he says.

From his grandfather, who bet on the horses as well as investing in shares, he learned the difference between investing and gambling.

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‘Visiting my grandad on a Saturday morning, we would walk to the newsagent to buy a copy of the FT and the Racing Post. Back home, I would update the prices of Grandad’s shares in his ledger and calculate the profit/loss since purchase.

‘In the meantime, Grandad would study the form to select his bets for afternoon racing live on the telly. We would walk back to the newsagent; Grandad would give me pocket money for sweets and I would wait outside the bookies while he would place his bets.

‘The lesson learnt was the difference between investment and speculation – with the latter you need to be prepared to lose all your money!’

Lesson Four: It’s always darkest just before dawn

For a lesson he has never forgotten, Ian Lance, fund manager in the UK Value & Income team at Redwheel, casts his mind back to a despondent lunch in City of London oyster bar Sweetings, just as Britain was about to crash out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in September 1992.

‘I calculated the payments on the mortgage my wife and I had taken out to buy our first home a few months earlier at the new interest rate of 12 per cent which the Government had just announced.

‘On finding that our payments were more than our combined salaries and the UK equity market was crashing, I headed down to Sweetings to drown my sorrows.

‘An hour or so later a colleague turned up and announced the stock market was soaring. The rest is history as Britain crashed out of the ERM, interest rates plummeted, and a new equity bull market began.’

What did he learn from this – apart from to take a long lunch now and then? ‘Markets look forward and will peer through the gloom to the sunlit uplands,’ he says. When all about you are despondent, it might be time for things to recover.

Lesson Five: You don’t know as much as you think you know

Jamie Ross, portfolio manager of Henderson Eurotrust, says that the facts available at our fingertips leave us more vulnerable than we know. The biggest lesson of his career, he says, has been that he always needs to focus on one important question when deciding whether to invest or not.

That question is: ‘What makes this a good company?’

‘It leads to all sorts of analysis, from understanding the competitive environment, to assessing pricing power to attempting to determine the sustainability of a company’s margins.’

Without this simple question, he says, it is easy to drown in information about a potential investment and to think you know everything about it.

‘Knowledge is not the same thing as understanding. Even experienced investors can sometimes miss the wood for the trees and suffer from familiarity bias – feeling more comfortable investing in something you ‘know’ lots about.

‘I think about this every time I start to work on a potential new investment.’

Lesson Six: Take the expert advice with a pinch of salt…

Edward Allen, investment director at Tyndall Private Clients, says that for all investment experts’ perceived wisdom they are ‘rarely cynical enough’, so you should never believe what you read from those who don’t have anything to lose from their predictions.

‘Economists and market forecasters have the luxury of being wrong. Investors do not,’ he points out.

‘Understand the biases of an author if you are going to follow their advice and remember that for every balanced, well-reasoned argument for doing something there will be many others for doing the opposite.

‘The investment world is perverse and often seemingly irrational.’

Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.

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