The World’s Most Successful Depression-Era Investor

I subscribe to a lot of newsletters. One of them Capital & Crises by Chris Mayer had a very interesting write up on John Maynard Keynes:

You probably know John Maynard Keynes as an economist, but may not know that he was also a great investor, maybe the most the successful of the Great Depression era. And for that reason, given all that our own markets are going through, it may be a good time to look at his investment career.

Keynes managed Cambridge’s King’s College Chest Fund. The Fund averaged 12% per year from 1927-1946, which was remarkable given that the period seemed to be all about gray skies and storm clouds – it included the Great Depression and World War II. The U.K. stock market fell 15% during this stretch. And to top it off, the Chest Fund’s returns included only capital appreciation, as the college spent the income earned in the portfolio, which was considerable. I think it must be one of the most remarkable track records in the annals of finance.

Keynes also made himself a personal fortune as an investor. When he died, he left an estate worth some $30 million in present-day dollars, which surprised his contemporaries. How he did it is the subject of this essay. A new book by Justyn Walsh, Keynes and the Market, is our chief guide on the subject.

As Walsh points out, Keynes spent his last six years as an unpaid Treasury adviser. He outlived his parents, who left him no inheritance. And Keynes was a great patron of the arts, financing many ventures out of his own pocket. To finish with such a grand sum sent London society abuzz. “Some surprise has been expressed about the large fortune left by Lord Keynes,” reflected the Financial Times. “Yet Lord Keynes was one of the few economists with the practical ability to make money.”

It wasn’t easy for Keynes, as these things seldom are for anyone. Keynes began as a run-of-mill speculator and trader, trying to anticipate trends and forecast cycles. The Great Crash of 1929 sent him back to the drawing board.

Keynes was, in fact, nearly wiped out in the Great Crash. His personal net worth fell by more than 80%. He then had a great conversion. Trading the market demanded “abnormal foresight” and “phenomenal skill” to work, he concluded. “I am clear,” the new Keynes wrote in a memorandum, “that the idea of wholesale shifts [in and out of the market at different stages of the business cycle] is for various reasons impracticable and undesirable.”

After the crash, he became an investor, rather than a speculator. His new ideas on investing began to presage those of value investing icons Ben Graham and Warren Buffett. Interestingly, the crash hurt Graham too and motivated him also to think deeply about the process of investing. The two great money minds came to nearly the same place in their thinking.

Keynes now focused less on forecasting the market. Instead, he cast his keen mind on individual securities, trying to figure out their “ultimate values,” as he called them. He summed up his new philosophy in a note to a colleague: “My purpose is to buy securities where I am satisfied as to assets and ultimate earnings power and where the market price seems cheap in relation to these.”

He also became more patient. Paraphrasing from his own analogy, Keynes described how it was easier and safer in the long run to buy a 75-cent dollar and wait, rather than buy a 75-cent dollar and sell it because it became a 50-cent dollar – and hope to buy it back as a 40-cent dollar. Keynes learned to trust more in his own research and opinions, and not let market prices put him off a good deal. When the market fell, Keynes remarked: “I do not draw from this conclusion that a responsible investing body should every week cast panic glances over its list of securities to find one more victim to fling to the bears.”

Keynes also developed a fierce contrarian streak. One of his greatest personal coups came in 1933. The Great Depression was on. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speeches gushed with anti-corporate rhetoric. The market sank. America’s utilities were, Keynes noticed, extremely cheap in “what is for the time being an irrationally unfashionable market.” He bought the depressed preferred stocks. In the next year, his personal net worth would nearly triple.

Keynes was an adviser to an insurance company, as well as manager of the Chest Fund. In a note, Keynes laid out his understanding of the quirky, contrarian nature of investing. It is “the one sphere of life and activity where victory, security and success is always to the minority, and never to the majority. When you find anyone agreeing with you, change your mind. When I can persuade the board of my insurance company to buy a share, that, I am learning from experience, is the right moment for selling it.”

He also learned to hold onto his stocks “through thick and thin,” he said, to let the magic of compounding do its thing. (In a tax-free fashion, too, by avoiding capital gains taxes.) “‘Be quiet'” is our best motto,” he wrote, by which he meant to ignore the short-term noise and let the longer-term forces assert themselves. It also meant limiting his activities to buying only when he found intrinsic values far above stock prices.

Keynes also came to the conclusion that you could own too many stocks. Better to own fewer stocks and more of your very best ideas than spread yourself too thin. Committees and others repeatedly criticized Keynes for making big bets on a smaller number of companies. In a typically witty reply, Keynes defended his views. In this case, his critics accused him of making too large a bet on Elder Dempster: “Sorry to have gone too large on Elder Dempster. I was suffering from my chronic delusion that one good share is safer than 10 bad ones.”

He rejected the idea, as Buffett and other great investors have, that you dilute your best bets by holding a long list of stocks. At times during Keynes’ career, half of his portfolio might be in only a handful of names, though he liked to mix up the risks he took. So though five names might make up half of his portfolio, they wouldn’t be all gold stocks, for instance. “For his faith in portfolio concentration,” Walsh writes, “Keynes was rewarded with an investment performance far superior – albeit more volatile – than that of the broader market.”

In the depth of the Depression, Keynes lost a friend, Sidney Russell Cooke, who took his own life after suffering severe losses in the market. Keynes, perhaps reflecting on this experience, wrote that investors need to take losses with “as much equanimity and patience” as possible. Investors must accept that stock prices can swing wide of underlying values for extended stretches of time.

Keynes’ investment performance improved markedly after adopting these ideas. Whereas in the 1920s, he generally trailed the market, he was a great performer after the crash. Walsh dates Keynes’ adoption of what we’d think of as a Warren Buffett sort of approach as beginning in 1931. From that time to 1945, the Chest Fund rose 10-fold in value in 15 years, versus no return for the overall market. That is a truly awesome performance in an awfully tough environment.

As investors wonder whether we face a 1930s-style market or not, I found a review of Keynes’ investing career useful and inspirational. The more I study investing, the more this same handful of ideas and principles seems to recur.

I know what book I’ll be reading over Christmas!

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