One Up on Wall Street / Beating The Street

Author : Peter Lynch




The Lynch Philosophy

Once his stellar track record running the Magellan Fund gained the widespread attention that usually follows great performance, Peter wrote several books outlining his philosophy on investing. They are great reads, but his core thesis can be summed up with three main tenets: only buy what you understand, always do your homework and invest for the long run. 

1.  Only Buy What You Understand

According to Lynch, our greatest stock research tools are our eyes, ears and common sense. Lynch was proud of the fact that many of his great stock ideas were discovered while walking through the grocery store or chatting casually with friends and family. We all have the ability to do first-hand analysis when we are watching TV, reading the newspaper, or listening to the radio. When we’re driving down the street or traveling on vacation we can also be sniffing out new investment ideas. After all, consumers represent two-thirds of the gross domestic product of the United States. In other words, most of the stock market is in the business of serving you, the individual consumer – if something attracts you as a consumer, it should also pique your interest as an investment.

2.  Always Do Your Homework

First-hand observations and anecdotal evidence are a great start, but all great ideas need to be followed up with smart research. Don’t be confused by Peter Lynch’s homespun simplicity when it comes to doing diligent research – rigorous research was a cornerstone of his success. When following up on the initial spark of a great idea, Lynch highlights several fundamental values that he expected to be met for any stock worth buying:

  • Percentage of Sales : If there is a product or service that initially attracts you to the company, make sure that it comprises a high enough percentage of sales to be meaningful; a great product that only makes up 5% of sales isn’t going to have more than a marginal impact on a company’s bottom line.
  • PEG Ratio : This ratio of valuation to earnings growth rate should be looked at to see how much expectation is built into the stock. You want to seek out companies with strong earnings growth and reasonable valuations – a strong grower with a PEG ratio of two or more has that earnings growth already built into the stock price, leaving little room for error.
  •  Favor companies with a strong cash position and below-average Debt-to-Equity ratios : Strong cash flows and prudent management of assets give the company options in all types of market environments.

3.  Invest for the Long Run

  • Lynch has said that “absent a lot of surprises, stocks are relatively predictable over 10-20 years. As to whether they’re going to be higher or lower in two or three years, you might as well flip a coin to decide.” It may seem surprising to hear such words from a Wall Street legend, but it serves to highlight how fully he believed in his philosophies. He kept up his knowledge of the companies he owned, and as long as the story hadn’t changed, he didn’t sell. Lynch did not try to market time or predict the direction of the overall economy.
  • In fact, Lynch once conducted a study to determine whether market timing was an effective strategy. According to the results of the study, if an investor had invested $1,000 a year on the absolute high day of the year for 30 years from 1965-1995, that investor would have earned a compounded return of 10.6% for the 30-year period. If another investor also invests $1,000 a year every year for the same period on the lowest day of the year, this investor would earn an 11.7% compounded return over the 30-year period.
  • Therefore, after 30 years of the worst possible market timing, the first investor only trailed in his returns by 1.1% per year! As a result, Lynch believes that trying to predict the short-term fluctuations of the market just isn’t worth the effort. If the company is strong, it will earn more and the stock will appreciate in value. By keeping it simple, Lynch allowed his focus to go to the most important task – finding great companies.
  • Lynch coined the term “tenbagger” to describe a stock that goes up in value ten-fold, or 1000%. These are the stocks that he was looking for when running the Magellan fund. Rule No.1 to finding a tenbagger is not selling the stock when it has gone up 40% or even 100%. Many fund managers these days look to trim or sell their winning stocks while adding to their losing positions. Peter Lynch felt that this amounted to “pulling the flowers and watering the weeds”.

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Peter Lynch also divided companies based on six general categories, which has their own unique characteristics. Based on these six categories, investors will be able to know the reason why they invest in such companies and consequently the return expected on each kind of companies. The six general categories are: slow growers, stalwarts, fast growers, cyclicals, asset plays and turnarounds.

  • Slow growers – As the name implies, this is the type of companies that grow slowly, barely above the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Slow grower exists for two reasons. First, they expand rapidly during their early years and had saturated the market or second, they did not make the most of their chances. The book names utilities as slow growers. During the 1950-1970 period however, they are fast growers. As electricity consumption increased (folks installed air conditions, electric heater, refrigerators etc.), power consumption rose and hence their growth rates. That does not happen anymore. Thus, a company inevitably will become a slow grower. A fast grower of the past will be tomorrow’s slow growers. Example of industries in this category include: railroad, aluminum, steel, chemicals, soft drink.
  • Stalwarts – These are not fast grower and yet they grow faster than the slow grower. Most stalwarts are huge companies with huge production of cash flow. Due to their enormous size, stalwarts won’t move much and Peter always try to take a profit whenever it has run up 30-50% in value in a short period of time. Some stalwarts include: Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Bristol Myers and Kellogg.
  • Fast Growers – The name says it all. These categories are for companies which has high growth rates. This is where the potential of the ten baggers lie. Other five categories will not give you as much chance of finding your next ten baggers. Fast Growers does not necessarily be in the fast growing industry. It can be growing fast in a slow growth industry. For example: WalMart in the stodgy retail industry, Marriott in the 2% growth hotel business, Anheuser-Busch in a slow growing beer market or Taco Bell in a not-so-fast fast food industry. There is however, plenty of risk in investing in fast growers. The trick is figuring out how much to pay for them and when they will stop growing because eventually, the party comes to an end.
  • Cyclicals – Not all companies can profit consistently all the time at every occasions. Generally, cyclicals profit rise and fall in regularly predictable fashion, most often moving in tandem with the economy. Businesses that can be considered cyclicals are : airlines, autos, defense companies or even chip industries. For defense companies, it is cyclical not with respect with the economy but rather with the policy of the white house. For chip industries, it is cyclical with the computer upgrade cycle. Timing is everything in cyclicals. Contrary to other categories, Peter avoids cyclicals trading at a low P/E which generally means that the cycle is currently at its peak. While this rule of thumb does not work 100%, it works pretty well to avoid picking cyclical companies that fall even lower.
  • Turnarounds – These are high risk high reward preposition. Generally, there are specific problems plaguing the company. Further, if the company fails to fix this particular mess, it will probably end up in bankruptcy court. Despite this, there are several appealing reasons for investing in a turnaround. One, of course, is the reward. Once the problem is fixed and solved, the stock price will rise sharply to trade in line with what its peers valuation are. The other beneficial factor of investing in a turnaround is that it is least likely affected by the general market condition. Market goes up, turnaround may stay down and vice versa. A recent example of a turnaround might be involving Altria (MO) in early 2000s. Facing hundreds of billions of lawsuit from smokers, the stock price sank so low that you can buy it at 5 times earnings and 10% dividend yield. Altria also owned a stable Kraft and Miller subsidiary (which was later sold). Turnaround investors will see if the lawsuit problem can be solved, then investing in Altria will be rewarded handsomely. Sure enough, lawsuit problems diminish and its stock price has increased four fold since then. Of course, turnarounds do not always turn around successfully. K-Mart bankruptcy is another past example.
  • Asset Plays – This is the type of companies that normally own a hidden asset that is not obviously listed on its balance sheet. All assets should be listed on the balance sheet, of course. But Asset play company often times do not list its asset at market value. For example, the value of real estate holding which is depreciated under the current accounting rule. Meanwhile, the land itself most likely will be worth more than its purchase price. Also, company that has huge tax-loss carryforward qualifies as asset plays.

Golden Rules of investing

  1. Investing is fun, exciting, and dangerous if you don’t do any work.
  2. Your investor’s edge is not something you get from Wall Street experts. It’s something you already have. You can outperform the experts if you use your edge by investing in companies or industries you already understand.
  3. Over the past three decades, the stock market has come to be dominated by a herd of professional investors. Contrary to popular belief, this makes it easier for the amateur investor. You can beat the market by ignoring the herd.
  4. Behind every stock is a company, find out what it’s doing.
  5. Often, there is no correlation between the success of a company’s operations and the success of its stock over a few months or even a few years. In the long term, there is a 100 percent correlation between the success of the company and the success of its stock. This disparity is the key to making money; it pays to be patient, and to own successful companies.
  6. You have to know what you own, and why you own it. “This baby is a cinch to go up!” doesn’t count.
  7. Long shots almost always miss the mark.
  8. Owning stocks is like having children – don’t get involved with more than you can handle. The part-time stockpicker probably has time to follow 8-12 companies, and to buy and sell shares as conditions warrant. There don’t have to be more than 5 companies in the portfolio at any time.
  9. If you can’t find any companies that you think are attractive, put your money into the bank until you discover some.
  10. Never invest in a company without understanding its finances. The biggest losses in stocks come from companies with poor balance sheets. Always look at the balance sheet to see if a company is solvent before you risk your money on it.
  11. Avoid hot stocks in hot industries. Great companies in cold, nongrowth industries are consistent big winners.
  12. With small companies, you’re better off to wait until they turn a profit before you invest.
  13. If you’re thinking about investing in a troubled industry, buy the companies with staying power. Also, wait for the industry to show signs of revival. Buggy whips and radio tubes were troubled industries that never came back.
  14. If you invest $1,000 in a stock, all you can lose is $1,000, but you stand to gain $10,000 or even $50,000 over time if you’re patient. The average person can concentrate on a few good companies, while the fund manager is forced to diversify. By owning too many stocks, you lose this advantage of concentration. It only takes a handful of big winners to make a lifetime of investing worthwhile.
  15. In every industry and every region of the country, the observant amateur can find great growth companies long before the professionals have discovered them.
  16. A stock-market decline is as routine as a January blizzard in Colorado. If you’re prepared, it can’t hurt you. A decline is a great opportunity to pick up the bargains left behind by investors who are fleeing the storm in panic.
  17. Everyone has the brainpower to make money in stocks. Not everyone has the stomach. If you are susceptible to selling everything in a panic, you ought to avoid stocks and stock mutual funds altogether.
  18. There is always something to worry about. Avoid weekend thinking and ignore the latest dire predictions of the newscasters. Sell a stock because the company’s fundamentals deteriorate, not because the sky is falling.
  19. Nobody can predict interest rates, the future direction of the economy, or the stock market. Dismiss all such forecasts and concentrate on what’s actually happening to the companies in which you’ve invested.
  20. If you study 10 companies, you’ll find 1 for which the story is better than expected. If you study 50, you’ll find 5. There are always pleasant surprises to be found in the stock market – companies whose achievements are being overlooked on Wall Street.
  21. If you don’t study any companies, you’ll have the same success buying stocks as you do in a poker game if you bet without looking at your cards.
  22. Time is on your side when you own shares of superior companies. You can afford to be patient – even if you missed Wal-Mart in the first five years, it was a great stock to own in the next five years. Time is against you when you own options.
  23. If you have the stomach for stocks, but neither the time nor the inclination to do the homework, invest in equity mutual funds. Here, it’s a good idea to diversify. You should own a few different kinds of funds, with managers who pursue different styles of investing: growth, value, small companies, large companies, etc. Investing in six of the same kind of fund is not diversification.
  24. The capital gains tax penalises investors who do too much switching from one mutual fund to another. If you’ve invested in one fund or several funds that have done well, don’t abandon them capriciously. Stick with them.
  25. Among the major markets of the world, the U.S. market ranks eighth in total return over the past decade. You can take advantage of the faster-growing economies by investing some of your assets in an overseas fund with a good record.
  26. In the long run, a portfolio of well-chosen stocks and/or equity mutual funds will always outperform a portfolio of bonds or a money-market account. In the long run, a portfolio of poorly chosen stocks won’t outperform the money left under the mattress.

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