I read this classic in its first edition 38 years ago just after completing a graduate degree in economics, and was captivated. The Efficient Market Hypothesis which it expounds was in its infancy. Index mutual funds had not yet been invented. There was much chatter about "crowd psychology" and the like, but Behavioralism as a distinct academic discipline applied to stock price movements had not yet evolved. And of course, no personal computers.
Now the tenth edition comes upon a changed world and a wiser reader. Reaction: it is even more captivating in some respects, less so in others.
More captivating: The futility of the individual investor trying to gain an information advantage over the market as a whole is even more compelling today. Investment advisors, fund managers, and many academics have a vested interest in debunking the Efficient Market Hypothesis. George Soros, for example, claims that it "has been well and truly discredited by the crash of 2008." "Markets," say the critics, "are not rational."
Of course they are not, and Malkiel never claimed they were. If "rational" means that markets correctly appraise the value of stocks as the discounted present value of future earnings, Malkiel hardly believes such value objectively exists. Valuations are nothing but forecasts ("what will earnings be in three years?") under malleable assumptions ("what is the correct discount rate?"). Just as individuals can be grossly wrong, markets collectively can be grossly wrong. Does Soros think Malkiel takes no account of bubbles? He should read the first edition which, like the tenth, opens with an exposition of the South Sea Bubble.
The Efficient Market Hypothesis simply holds that markets are very quick to gobble up and digest information--so quick that it is nearly hopeless for an individual to gain an information advantage. Moreover, fundamental analysis heavily relies on SEC filings. After a career of drafting, litigating, and teaching S1s, 10Ks, and 10Qs, I can affirm that, while outright fraud is rare, these things are filled with embedded fictions. Any investor who believes that he can apply some kind of exalted wisdom to data that is equally available to all, is deluding himself.
Less captivating: In the first edition, Malikiel pointed out that 67% of managed mutual funds fail to match the return of broad-based indexes such as the Wilshire 5000. At the time, that seemed to me a stunningly astute observation. Today, it seems banal. Begin with the statistically tautological fact that in any year 50% of funds will perform below the market and 50% above. If you subtract the higher fees and taxes that are sucked out of managed funds, that alone accounts for the difference. (Maybe 33% beat the market in Year 1. But over ten or twenty years, the percentage shrinks to a minuscule level--functionally zero.)
So Malkiel's recommended strategy of buying and holding broad-based index funds is based on nothing more than spreading risk and saving costs: the labor of research and the levy of fees and taxes. That is a useful revelation, but not as brilliant as I thought 38 years ago.
So should non-professionals give up on picking stocks? Yes, if they hope to beat the market over the long term. Yet there is nothing irrational in viewing the market as a kind of roulette table. Roulette is a slightly negative-sum game, while the stock market is a positive-sum game--about 9% positive. You can hit a streak in roulette and come out ahead from time to time. Your chances of hitting a streak in the market are even better, and the game of individual stock-picking can be fun. But we shouldn't forget that it is, as Keynes said, "a game of Snap, of Old Maid, of Musical Chairs -- a pastime in which he is victor who says Snap neither too soon nor too late, who passes the Old Maid to his neighbour before the game is over, who secures a chair for himself when the music stops."
- Hardcover: 448 pages
- Publisher: WW Norton & Co; 1 edition (1 January 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1324002182
- ISBN-13: 978-1324002185
- Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 3.8 x 24.4 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 748 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 18,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)