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Market wisdom from one of Canada’s most respected professional investment managers

By Patrick McKeough  | Monday, March 16, 2015

Investor shorthand can provide a useful guide to investment information, but it can also oversimplify analysis and events and steer investors into bad decisions. Investor shorthand can help you think about and talk about large blocks of investment information. But it may also lead you to make associations and come to conclusions that can cost you money. Here’s how to avoid this common investment mistake.

For example, think about the common investor shorthand term, “low-p/e stocks.” It encompasses four statistics: price per share; per-share earnings; the p/e (the ratio of a stock’s price to its per-share earnings); and low p/e (which suggests a normal range exists for p/e’s generally, or for p/e’s of stocks of a particular type or description, and that these stocks are near the lower half of the range).

Some investors, beginners especially, see special appeal in stocks with low p/e’s. They jump to the conclusion that the p/e is low because the “p,” or stock price, is low, and that this is a sure sign of a bargain. When you use that term to generalize, however, you can lose sight of the fact that p/e’s can be (or can seem) low for all sorts of reasons.

For example, maybe the “e,” or earnings, is temporarily high, due to unusual factors that will soon revert to normal or worse. Or, the stock price may be low, and headed lower, due to negative conditions or trends in the company or its industry.

Of course, many experienced investors understand how the use of shorthand investment terms can warp investor perceptions, and lead them to take on unwanted risk. But they fail to see the upside-down version of that risk in newer, poorly-defined terms. One good example is the term “bubble.”

The long bubble of the automobile industry

When you label a particular investment area as a “bubble,” you are saying that it’s so overpriced and has generated such high investor expectations that current buyers are bound to lose money. That situation does occur from time to time. However, over-cautious observers tend to throw the term “bubble” around way too widely, and way too soon. It’s as if they want to warn others against investing in any area where prices are rising.

Before you dismiss a promising investment area as a bubble, try to remember that bubbles and bull markets last much longer than pessimists predict. The U.S. auto industry went in and out of a bubble from its beginnings in the early 20th century until its yearly production finally hit a lasting peak in the 1970s. Netscape (owner of the first widely used Internet browser software) doubled overnight after going public in 1996, and some took that as a sign that the Internet boom itself had peaked. That same year, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan made his famous comment about irrational exuberance in the stock market, but the market kept on rising for four more years.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 market index has tripled since 1996. The Internet boom is still underway, although it goes through wide fluctuations from year to year, just like the auto industry of the previous century.

Investor shorthand can help you classify investment information. But if you let it take the place of analysis in your thinking, it can lead you to invest in low-p/e stocks that are about to demonstrate why they were trading at a seemingly bargain price. It can also lead you to miss out in opportunities that looked like bubbles early on, but turned out to be decades-long booms.

This post originally appeared on TSI Network, © 2015 TSI Network.

Patrick McKeough, host of the investment website, has been a professional investment analyst for more than three decades. He is also a portfolio manager and the editor and publisher of four investment advisories: The Successful Investor, Wall Street Stock Forecaster, Stock Pickers Digest, and Canadian Wealth Advisor. Follow Pat on Twitter and Facebook.

Notes and Disclaimer

© 2015 by Fund Library. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part by any means without written permission is prohibited.

The foregoing is for general information purposes only and is the opinion of the writer. Securities mentioned carry risk of loss. No guarantee of investment performance is made or implied. It is not intended to provide specific personalized advice including, without limitation, investment, financial, legal, accounting or tax advice. Please contact the author to discuss your particular circumstances.

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