All You Need is One Good Idea from an Investing Book

  1. Bookfuls of Advice

Pinching Pennies

A Flexible Flyer

I just received an email from an online bookseller recommending what it called “Career Books to Stay Competitive.”  The message talked about how “technology, business and the working world are changing rapidly in today’s fast-paced environment,” and how you need to read these books “to keep you sharp and on top.”

That’s all very nice marketing-speak, but the message is clear.  These days, either you do everything you can to be indispensable or your name may be on the next pink slip.

The 30 books were neatly divided into six different categories–which I’m not going to list–but here are five from the “Taking Care of Business” section.  “The Path of Least Resistance” by Robert Fritz, “Cut to the Chase” by Stuart Levine, “The Effective Executive” by Peter F. Drucker, “Making Things Happen” by Scott Berkun, and “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.

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As is usual with this kind of professional self-help book, the titles are just teasers, while the subtitles actually deliver the book’s promises.

The subtitle of “Path of Least Resistance” goes on to offer “Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life.”  “Cut to the Chase” turns out to be about that and “99 Other Rules to Liberate Yourself and Gain Back the Gift of Time.”  Yes, big promises do come in flat packages and cost about $30.

The importance of education during rough economic times is a story that my fellow Cabot analysts and I are well aware of.  The education sector has been one of the relatively few bright spots in this cranky market.

But beyond the specific tips, insights and information that these books offer, they have another vital function.  They give people a reason to hope.

If you can read something that makes you a better employee, a better boss, even a better person, you can transcend your limitations and live the life you want.  At least that’s the theory.

It’s the same way with investing.  Every year there are literally dozens of books that tell you how to thrive in the coming downturn, make hay even when the sun isn’t shining, make a million (or even a billion!) in the stock market.

If you search for “stock investing” in Amazon’s book section, you get 7,353 results.  I gave up after scrolling through just 96 of them.

During my quick survey, I found a bunch of entries for books aimed at either beginners, idiots or dummies.  There are books aimed at investing in small caps, micro caps, options, growth stocks, value stocks and low-priced value stocks, dividend-yielding stocks, momentum stocks, penny stocks, Chinese stocks, day trading, swing trading, short-term trading, and green investing.  And remember, this is just the first 96 entries!

It’s enough to make a person think that the way to make money in the stock market is to let the stocks alone and write a book about it instead.

I have just three points to make about this plethora, this avalanche, of books about how to invest in stocks.

First, don’t expect a book to change your work life or your investing life.  You got to be the investor you are through a lifetime of experience, and if one book can really change your fundamental approach, maybe you’re not ready for the character testing that the market administers.

Second, Carlton Lutts, the founder of our company, used to say that all you need to get from a book to make it worth the reading is one good idea.  Cabot Heritage is headquartered in a decommissioned branch library, and the wall next to where I sit is lined with books on investing, some of them dating back to the 1920s.  If you’re serious about becoming a better investor, you should be doing your homework, hoping that every book you read delivers that one good idea.

Third, as I wrote above, sometimes what these books are selling is hope.  Investing is a tough business, and the market has no qualms at all about grinding your best stocks into dust.  A book that gives you renewed confidence and allows you to stay in the game may just have done its job.

Here’s one of my favorite stories from my time at a large investment house in Boston.  I doubt that this will do your investing much good, but it’s definitely worth a smile.

This big investment house was founded by a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee whose Boston roots ran deep in the cold soil of Massachusetts.  When the decision was made to begin offering the firm’s services to those outside the coterie of Boston Brahmins, a network of brokers were solicited around the U.S.  to sell its investment products.

The business remained small for many years, but when it began to build momentum in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was decided that the company should invite the top brokers to Boston to meet with the founder and see the operation, sort of an esprit-building junket.

When the group had done the tour and met the founder, they were all invited out to lunch with the Great Man.  But instead of piling into taxicabs, the founder took off walking, with the group in tow, and wound up at a small restaurant in Boston’s Financial District.  Taking the lead, the founder announced that he was having the 99-cent lunch special, and recommended that they do the same.  And finally, while the folks from the marketing department watched with chagrin, he asked that all of these meals be billed on separate checks.

Needless to say, this wasn’t the kind of deluxe treatment the brokers were expecting, but they all fell into line.

Then, when lunch was over, the founder gathered up all of their 99-cent lunch tickets and paid for them himself.  He announced to the group that there was a meal tax on any check over a dollar, and that by getting separate checks, he had saved the 3% tax!

The corporate types were afraid that the founder’s parsimony would offend the brokers, but that wasn’t what happened.  When they returned to their posts in the various states, they kept telling the story and saying, “See, that’s the kind of a man you want to have looking after your investments!”

I don’t know if it would work today, but it showed exactly the kind of character people wanted in their investment professionals in those days.  Come to think of it, maybe we still do.

My investment idea for today is a stock that used to be in the portfolio of the Cabot China & Emerging Markets Report before it fell off the earnings wagon.  It’s Multi-Fineline Electronix, (MFLX), a company with headquarters and R&D facilities in California, and manufacturing in China and Malaysia.  The company’s specialty is flexible circuits, the kind that connect the two halves of clamshell cell phones.  Multi-Fineline’s circuits are also found in hand-held scanners, and an increasing number of small electronic devices.  By putting a high density of features on a thin, flexible substrate, the company’s circuits allow devices to become even smaller.

MFLX was a great stock back in 2005, but it started a hard fall in 2006, dropping from 67 in March to 10 in August 2007, as earnings shrank.  After a recovery to 29 in mid-2008, the bear stomped on the stock and it plummeted to 7 in November.  Since then, the stock has made a stunning recovery, soaring for 10 straight weeks to near 20.

Q3 earnings featured a 467% jump in earnings on just a 28% boost in revenues.  Q4 results will come out on February 5, and investors are obviously anticipating good news.

Timothy Lutts

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