Time and inclination. I used to start all my articles about stock picking with those twin caveats: If you have the time and inclination, you can beat the pros. If you don't, I have held, you should join the pros. You should let mutual funds or good money managers or brokers help guide you through the thicket.
If you want to do it yourself, however, you must recognize that there are two clashing investment philosophies: the need to buy and hold to get the best long-term gain, and the need to preserve capital.
The latter has always been my oath. You must preserve your capital. In the last five years though, preservation of capital has become the troublesome orphan. Nobody wants it. It is considered the enemy of long-term appreciation.
It wasn't always like that. There was a time, not too long ago, when talking about capital preservation made you sound wise. Heck, you
wise. But with a bull market that generated outstanding returns, preservation of capital became an almost laughable afterthought.
That's because if you tried to preserve capital you had to sell. Selling became something you did only if you were a lunatic. A predilection to buy made you a wise man. A predilection to sell made you a flipper, a trader, and a loser.
And what if you were down on a position? Didn't the averages always work out in the end? Didn't the
always rally in the end? Didn't the company or the market bail you out?
Which is why, when you were down on a position, it was fine. It was great. In fact, it was because you set out to be "long-term," as if long-term somehow trumped capital loss!!!
It's the long-term as an excuse, as an apology for poor performance, that I am gunning for. Take this week's
New York Observer
. There is a terrific piece about Ryan Jacob, who, of course, deserves our sympathies and our kindnesses because it was not his fault.
That's what I kept saying to myself about his down 50-something record -- until I read this interview. What does he have to say for himself, this man who is down huge? I quote: "We are long-term investors. ... My core beliefs have not been shaken. ... Well, maybe shaken a little bit. But I know it is just a matter of time."
Wrong! Wrong!! Wrong!!! Matter of time? What is that? Time heals all wounds? What are we, clergymen now? And what will it take to shake this guy's core beliefs? Down 80%. Okey-dokey!?!
Here are some better answers. "I screwed up and was too bullish. I never knew markets could implode like this. I was taught to always buy the dips. I don't know if many of my companies will ever come back. I am working hard to preserve peoples' capital until better times."
Nah, preserve capital, that's for losers. That's for guys who don't understand the power of buy and hold!
There have been hundreds and hundreds of companies that have been created in the last five years. I am quite confident if you bought them all for the long-term, you will lose huge amounts of money on many of them. When you have an asterisk on your margin run that stands for "no valuation," you will no longer be able to console yourself with "I was in it for the long-term." You will have violated the other cardinal rule: You will have failed to preserve capital.
You will have done harm. And time is not on your side. With many of these companies, time is working
Some of the backlash I have received on this position is quite charming. The rap goes like this: "Cramer's a trader. He can dart in and out. He can move back and forth. He is a total chameleon."
I have never, ever said that I am not a trader or someone who goes back and forth. But believe me, I do it in part because I fear the downside. Maybe it was the crash of '87. Maybe it was the brutality of '90 and '94, and for me, '98. Whatever. I insist that capital preservation be part of the vital mix. And I will never change that mantra.
James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At time of publication, his fund had no positions in any stocks mentioned. His fund often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns, both before and after the columns are published, and the positions that his fund takes may change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to send comments on his column to
James J. Cramer.