Figure

Researchers Brad Barber and Terrance Odean divided thousands of traders into five tiers based on how often they turned over their holdings. Those who traded the least (at the left) kept most of their gains. But the impatient and hyperactive traders made their brokers rich, not themselves. (The bars at the far right show a market index fund for comparison.)

Researchers Brad Barber and Terrance Odean divided thousands of traders into five tiers based on how often they turned over their holdings. Those who traded the least (at the left) kept most of their gains. But the impatient and hyperactive traders made their brokers rich, not themselves. (The bars at the far right show a market index fund for comparison.)

Source: Profs. Brad Barber, University of California at Davis, and Terrance Odean, University of California at Berkeley

Unfortunately, for every IPO like Microsoft that turns out to be a big winner, there are thousands of losers. The psychologists Daniel Kahn-erman and Amos Tversky have shown when humans estimate the likelihood or frequency of an event, we make that judgment based not on how often the event has actually occurred, but on how vivid the past examples are. We all want to buy "the next Microsoft"-precisely because we know we missed buying the first Microsoft. But we conveniently overlook the fact that most other IPOs were terrible investments. You could have earned that $533 decillion gain only if you never missed a single one of the IPO market's rare winners-a practi cal impossibility. Finally, most of the high returns on IPOs are captured by members of an exclusive private club—the big investment banks and fund houses that get shares at the initial (or "underwriting") price, before the stock begins public trading. The biggest "run-ups" often occur in stocks so small that even many big investors can't get any shares; there just aren't enough to go around.

If, like nearly every investor, you can get access to IPOs only after their shares have rocketed above the exclusive initial price, your results will be terrible. From 1980 through 2001, if you had bought the average IPO at its first public closing price and held on for three years, you would have underperformed the market by more than 23 percentage points annually.9

Perhaps no stock personifies the pipe dream of getting rich from IPOs better than VA Linux. "LNUX THE NEXT MSFT," exulted an early owner; "BUY NOW, AND RETIRE IN FIVE YEARS FROM NOW,"10 On December 9, 1999, the stock was placed at an initial public offering price of $30. But demand for the shares was so ferocious that when NASDAQ opened that morning, none of the initial owners of VA Linux would let go of any shares until the price hit $299. The stock peaked at $320 and closed at $239.25, a gain of 697.5% in a single day. But that gain was earned by only a handful of institutional traders; individual investors were almost entirely frozen out.

More important, buying IPOs is a bad idea because it flagrantly violates one of Graham's most fundamental rules: No matter how many other people want to buy a stock, you should buy only if the stock is a cheap way to own a desirable business. At the peak price on day one, investors were valuing VA Linux's shares at a total of $12.7 billion. What was the company's business worth? Less than five years old, VA Linux had sold a cumulative total of $44 million worth of its software and services—but had lost $25 million in the process. In its most recent fiscal quarter, VA Linux had generated $15 million in sales but

9 Jay R. Ritter and Ivo Welch, "A Review of IPO Activity, Pricing, and Allocations," Journal of Finance, August, 2002, p. 1797. Ritter's website, at http:// bear.cba.ufl.edu/ritter/, and Welch's home page, at http://welch.som.yale. edu/, are gold mines of data for anyone interested in IPOs.

10 Message no. 9, posted by "GoldFingers69," on the VA Linux (LNUX) message board at messages.yahoo.com, dated December 16, 1999. MSFT is the ticker symbol for Microsoft Corp.

had lost $10 million on them. This business, then, was losing almost 70 cents on every dollar it took in. VA Linux's accumulated deficit (the amount by which its total expenses had exceeded its income) was $30 million.

If VA Linux were a private company owned by the guy who lives next door, and he leaned over the picket fence and asked you how much you would pay to take his struggling little business off his hands, would you answer, "Oh, $12.7 billion sounds about right to me"? Or would you, instead, smile politely, turn back to your barbecue grill, and wonder what on earth your neighbor had been smoking? Relying exclusively on our own judgment, none of us would be caught dead agreeing to pay nearly $13 billion for a money-loser that was already $30 million in the hole.

But when we're in public instead of in private, when valuation suddenly becomes a popularity contest, the price of a stock seems more important than the value of the business it represents. As long as someone else will pay even more than you did for a stock, why does it matter what the business is worth?

This chart shows why it matters.

Lessons From The Intelligent Investor

Lessons From The Intelligent Investor

If you're like a lot of people watching the recession unfold, you have likely started to look at your finances under a microscope. Perhaps you have started saving the annual savings rate by people has started to recover a bit.

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