How individual investors can gain an edge over others

Dr Ajibola Awolowo

In many quarters, investing is seen to be a zero-sum game. As investors, we compete against each other and jostle to make the most of whatever hand the market deals to us. Investing is certainly not a team sport. We can all decide to buy the same company but our returns will vary due to the differences in the price we buy, how long we hold for and the price we eventually sell.

The buyer makes money if the stock price goes up after he/ she buys while the seller losses money in the same deal as they sold too early. We are all trying to get better returns than the next investor and beat the index in the process. We all want to be on the right side of every trade we make.

How then can the individual investor ply his or her trade in a way that they make the highest return? How can we stand out amongst the sea of investors out there? What are the sources of competitive advantage to an individual investor? Seeking answers to these questions and more is the subject of this article.

I do not claim to have generated the answers myself. I either read or heard them somewhere and they have stuck with me since. Permit me to expound on them and share with you.

Informational Edge

The first way an individual investor can earn better returns than other investors out there is for him or her to have superior information about a company or an industry. Information is the lifeblood of the market. The market rises on favourable information and tanks on bad news. This informational edge can range from insight into an unannounced earning report, an upcoming board change, an unannounced acquisition etc.

An individual investor with this type of information can take position before the general market knows it and ride the wave either up or down depending on if the news is positive or negative. Most times, the people that have access to this type of information are company insiders such as company management and other top level staff.

Thankfully, the rules of the Nigeria Exchange Group strongly discourage such insider trading and have put measures in place which aim to minimize the impact of this informational advantage. These measures include having a closed period during which company board members and other staff are not allowed to trade in the company shares as critical information which are not yet public may circulate within the company. Usually, these closed periods come up just before, during board meetings that deliberate over company results and lasts until such results have been published.

Another good example of a measure set up by the Nigeria Exchange Group to prevent the unfair informational edge is the Nigeria Exchange Group Issuers Portal where companies directly upload their results onto. Once this is done, the result becomes available to the investing public and the exchange at the same time without giving any particular group of persons an unfair advantage.

This is in sharp contrast to what may have been obtainable in the past when the results are first sent to the exchange prior to publishing to the investing public. This might have led to a lot of privileged insider trades as people with access to these results placed buy or sell trades based on them prior to the results becoming public knowledge.

Insider trading based on access to price-sensitive information is now a thing of the past (hopefully) thanks to innovative ideas put in place by the Nigeria Exchange Group. If having an informational edge is illegal, discouraged and very unfair, what are the other means by which an individual investor can have an edge over others?

Analytical Edge

If an investor can seek to understand a company thoroughly, look through the company’s financial reports diligently, use those figures to extrapolate into the future and make buy or sell decisions today based on them, he or she may be doing something that others aren’t doing. This act constitutes an analytical edge over other investors.

Having an analytical edge simply means that the individual investor is able to do all the hard work that other investors or speculators are unwilling to undertake. This puts the investor willing to do the hard work at an advantage over their peers. Fortunately, this is a legal and acceptable way to stand out from the crowd unlike the previous point.

Analytical edge comes in various forms such as undertaking a fundamental analysis based on the company’s numbers or a technical analysis based on the charts.

In doing a fundamental analysis, the investor can look at the companies past earnings or cash flows, how predictable they have been and use that to predict future earnings/ cash flows. These future earnings/ cash flows can be used to arrive at a possible future price which, if significantly higher than the present price after discounting it to present day value, should trigger a buy decision and a sell decision if vice versa.

Technical analysis, on the other hand, entails taking a deep look at past prices and volume actions, gauging investor sentiments and using all of this to predict future price movements. There are people that swear by its efficacy. Personally, I prefer walking that path of fundamentals as I believe it is more predictable and proven. Anyway, the discuss today is not about which is superior but about the advantageous position the common investor puts himself/ herself in by toeing either path.

Fortunately, any Tom, Dick or Harry who knows how to input a few formulas on Microsoft Excel spreadsheets or look at a stock chart can seek to develop an analytical edge. Once an edge becomes common place, it ceases to be an edge at that instant. Having an analytical edge is therefore commonplace and no longer an edge in the real sense of things. Using one or both methods, fundamental and technical analysis, should be seen as normal in investing except one is simply speculating.

Psychological Edge

This leads to the last edge which is not commonplace but very essential to investing success – Psychological edge. This is the most important factor that separates investing greats such as Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger and Mohnish Pabrai from other average investors.

It is having the necessary base intelligence to carry out a fundamental analysis, the emotional discipline to stick to your guns even if the trade goes against you temporarily and the humility to change your mind when a superior argument surfaces.

Undertaking a company analysis is common. Having this emotional discipline is very uncommon. This discipline dictates that one buys only the companies he/ she understands only if they have good management in place. It also entails buying the company at a price that affords a healthy margin of safety which protects you should you have made a mistake.

This emotional discipline will cause you to sit on your hands or even buy more if the price declines after you buy rather than sell out of panic. It takes discipline, patience, deep conviction, willingness to stand apart from the crowd, being teachable and a passion for self-improvement to invest this way – The Value Investing Way.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the temperament and innate ability to do all the above. It will come naturally to some while it will be a huge struggle for others. Some people just have all the right traits to practice value investing while most do not. This does not mean that those who do not have this ability are at a disadvantage. Rather it means they should be real with themselves and try other methods of investing or employ the services of a fund manager.

It does however mean that people who have the in-built right temperament make better investors due to this psychological advantage they possess. This temperament and state of mind cannot be taught or learnt. You either have it or you do not.

This idea is summarised by this quote – “We don’t have to be smarter than the rest. We have to be more disciplined than the rest” – Warren Buffet.

This, I believe, is the highest and greatest edge one investor can have over the other. It is legal, sustainable, rare and cannot be copied. It is what makes value investors unique.

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