Q2 2019: Stepping Back
So much of our time and effort is devoted to one objective: how to stay focussed on the few things that really matter to achieving your long-term investment goals.
There’s a torrent of information crashing over us 24 hours a day – if we let it. Our attention is not just demanded but owned and traded. In the past we had a gold rush and an oil rush. Today, we humans are the raw material for a new “attention rush”.
Everything is important. Everything is urgent. FOMO is our new religion; likes are our new currency (sorry, Bitcoin and Libra). Opinions, thoughts, even entire systems of philosophy are reduced to what can be digested in 140 characters. Our screens, where most of this cacophony is happening, are full of what marketers refer to as “calls to action”.
In long-term investing, we know that the best course of action is to try to filter out the noise and not to take action. What we need in investment is not a “call to action” but instead a “call to do nothing”.
A call to do nothing
It can be just as hard – and just as useful – to find ways to tune out the white noise of modern life beyond the financial markets, of course. We just got back from a short break camping on a farm in Kent in which, essentially, we did absolutely nothing.
As a child I never went camping. To my germ-phobic mother camping is an unspeakable nightmare of soil and spiders. But my children absolutely love it so I am having to adapt.
I look around at other campers and most of the time they are just sat there doing nothing. What’s the point of that? Why on earth would you drive hundreds of miles to sit in a field?
But the kids have already grasped what I am slowly realising: that there is luxury in this simplicity and freedom. They have an open field in which to run around, to kick a ball, to play badminton, to sketch or read for as long as they wish. Mobiles are out of range or soon out of battery with nowhere to charge.
I went 24 whole hours without my mobile, can you imagine that?!
What happens when you disconnect
I have started to appreciate the joy of grass underfoot, looking at nothing but trees and the sky, noticing two hot air balloons drifting in the distance. The first coffee of the morning with the sun on my face. The boys’ happy faces lit by the glow of the fire as they dip toasted marshmallows into hot chocolate.
At home we can retreat into our own zones and priorities, only intermittently intersecting with each other, let alone with the communities we live in. Our “social networks” have replaced our social networks. On the campsite, everything is collaborative: putting up the tent (an activity which can make or break relationships!), preparing meals or getting the fire going.
It’s not just the family working together. You can’t just dash out to Tesco to get something you have forgotten; you might have to ask for help from strangers who, it turns out, will gladly spot you some cooking gas or help get tent pegs out of the ground. Is this sense of community what my parents go on about when they talk about “the good old days” of street parties and walking in and out of neighbours’ houses? And was that funny feeling in my stomach a realisation of how rare this is in our world which is supposedly more “connected” than ever?
Lessons for investment
Returning to the “real world” after such an experience was interesting. What did I miss? Racism from the leader of the free world; the Strait of Hormuz tightening; and the heir to Winston Churchill waving a fish around. These are the pressing issues of the day: the ones we are nudged to preoccupy ourselves with and to shout about on Twitter.
Of course, the market twists and turns, apparently in response to every word, every Tweet and every tremor. As you know, we urge you to disregard short-term ebbs and flows which are more akin to gambling than investing. We position you to benefit from powerful long-term economic trends which, in hindsight, swamp the frantic headlines of any era.
So, at least for a few days, I will make a conscious effort to think about the grass, the sky, the first coffee and the silence, every time a screaming headline tries to steal my attention. To remain worthy guardians of your wealth, we need to be grand masters of focus. It could be that the best training for this is simply to “Do nothing” every now and then.