Three Ways to Be a Superior Investor

Years ago, Bill – an affable gentleman in his 60s – shared a personal story with me (Mike Barrett) that I'll never forget...

As you can probably guess, it ends tragically. What made the story unforgettable is that it didn't have to end that way.

Today, I'm sharing Bill's heartbreaking tale of stock fortunes won, then suddenly lost.

As I'll show, we can take away three important lessons from this story. And I promise, they will make you a better investor...

Like many people in their 60s, Bill moved to Florida after living most of his life somewhere else – in this case, Corning, New York.

"Crystal City" is also the world headquarters for glassmaker Corning (GLW), a Fortune 500 company with dozens of manufacturing facilities around the world.

Bill became nostalgic as he recalled his many years living in Corning. He fondly remembered executives and plant workers routinely "rubbing shoulders" at their kids' school events and in the small town's shops and restaurants.

Everybody, it seems, was also a Corning shareholder. Bill told me he had owned shares most of his adult life, adding to them over the years when he could and reinvesting the dividends.

In 1999, Corning's stock (and Bill's net worth) suddenly began to soar...

Shares doubled between June 1999 and December 1999... then doubled again as the dot-com mania hit its stride, peaking in August 2000 near $325 (on a pre-split basis).

Corning's meteoric 1,200% rise in just 24 months meant Bill was suddenly worth millions. With retirement just a decade away, he was set. It was too good to be true... And then, without warning, it wasn't.

The dot-com bubble suddenly burst... tech stocks crashed... and $5 trillion in paper wealth disappeared.

Two months after hitting an all-time high near $325, Corning shares were down more than 50%. They wouldn't stop falling until they hit $3 in October 2002... a stunning 99% implosion.

Tragically, Bill never sold.

My colleague Dan Ferris says investors tend to make their biggest mistakes at market extremes. Sadly, this is a perfect example of what he's referring to.

Achieving financial independence and letting it slip through your fingers takes an enormous mental toll. I'm sure not a day goes by that Bill doesn't wonder how his life might be better had he handled things differently – probably when his alarm clock goes off, reminding him to get up and get ready for work every day.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to ask the most obvious question...

Why didn't Bill sell some of his shares before it was too late?

The answer – and our first lesson – is less obvious: Bill was too emotionally attached to Corning and its stock. He wasn't prepared to part ways with it because he never imagined such a day would come.

In his book, Mastering the Market Cycle, investing guru Howard Marks identifies one of the greatest and most underappreciated attributes of superior investors – an unemotional nature. Here's how he explains it...

A lack of emotionality is a gift (in investing, that is, but perhaps not in other areas, like marriage). It's not my point that emotional people can't be good investors, but it will require a great deal of self-awareness and self-restraint.

Let Bill's heartbreak serve as an important lesson: It's easy to get complacent about a stock that has treated you well... But never allow yourself to get so emotionally attached that it clouds your judgment.

The Corning story also provides two more important lessons related to investor psychology...

Marks eloquently sets the stage for them both with the following excerpt from his book. (As an aside, the seventh chapter, titled "The Pendulum of Investor Psychology," is a must-read for serious investors.) As he wrote...

In the real world, things generally fluctuate between "pretty good" and "not so hot."

But in the world of investing, perception often swings from "flawless" to "hopeless."

The pendulum careens from one extreme to the other, spending almost no time at "the happy medium" and rather little in the range of reasonableness.

During the late '90s, Corning's business was "pretty good." It started doing what many companies do when times are good – acquiring smaller competitors and consolidating the industry.

The acquired companies brought lots of new revenue streams and caused earnings to soar. Investors, in turn, saw the exceptional numbers and assumed Corning's earnings would be flawless for years to come.

I wrote about this phenomenon in a DailyWealth essay. Investors generally figure the near future will look a lot like the recent past. Most of the time, they're pretty much right. But eventually, the future doesn't look as good as the recent past, which triggers an abrupt shift in investor expectations... and causes stock prices to plummet.

In the fall of 2000, it became increasingly clear that Corning's stock was priced to perfection, and that its future would likely be far short of that. The pendulum of investor psychology suddenly began swinging toward hopeless.

Investors correctly anticipated that Corning's acquisition binge would be disastrous once demand slowed. Sure enough, the company wrote down the value of its newly acquired businesses by an enormous $5 billion the next year.

Four years later, in its 2004 annual report, Corning noted the market was still out of balance, saying...

We see few signs of a broader recovery in overall demand, mix of premium products, and pricing for our products [in the telecom division].

Here's the second important lesson I want you to keep in mind...

Strong capital markets and historically low, near-0% interest rates encouraged U.S. corporations to go on a "buy growth" binge before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, investors priced stocks to perfection, assuming this acquisition-fueled growth will continue for years to come.

But at some point, the flawless sentiment priced into stocks had start careening the other way.

That's what we saw last June when the S&P 500 Index officially entered bear market territory, thanks to stocks falling 21% in six months.

The third lesson we can take from our earlier Corning story is perhaps the most important...

As the pendulum of investor psychology eventually swings like a wrecking ball away from flawless and toward hopeless, investors are sure to overreact and create a huge number of attractive investment opportunities.

When Corning finally bottomed in 2002 around $3 a share, sentiment was as irrational as it had been at the peak in August 2000. Sure, a full recovery was still years away. But Corning had proven it could weather the worst of storms. It was a classic deep-value moment... where the upside potential far outweighed the downside risk.

An investor buying Corning stock near its lows in late 2002 made 10 times his money a year later.

Superior investors learn to control their own emotions so they can exploit the pendulum of investor psychology as it swings between flawless and hopeless. Use this to your advantage in the years ahead.

Good investing,

Mike Barrett

Editor's note: Mike and his colleague Dan Ferris follow a specific investing approach in their Extreme Value newsletter – and it could yield incredible results in the next market cycle. On March 2, Dan will reveal what he sees as the next big setup in the markets and why it means making money right now could be much easier than you might think. Click here to make sure you don't miss it.