Sunday, January 9, 2011

Beyond Near Term Investing:
How Much For Brains?

Luckily for me and I hope for you, thoughts once launched continue under development as people react and additional information becomes available. I am very blessed as I am regularly in receipt of many stimulating investment papers and articles of importance.

Last week’s blog post focused on the relative value of my personal accounts' 40%+ investment allocation outside the US and the expenditures to support education for various members of my family.

This week I was privileged to read three articles and a personal email that contributed considerably more depth to these thoughts.

Top Test Scores From Shanghai Surprise Educators

The above was the headline in an attachment to the always interesting, thought provoking and occasionally correct “Ten Surprises” by Byron Wien of Blackstone. (Disclosure: I have known Byron for the more than 50 years and have served on boards with him.) One of the reasons Byron was pessimistic long term as to the future of the US was the poor test scores earned by 15 year-olds in the US relative to others around the world in 2009. The tests were given in Science, Reading and Math. In each case, the United States was far from a leader, above average in Science and Reading but below average in Math. There were thirteen countries that did better than the US students in all three tests. In order of their Math rank they were: China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Belgium, Australia, and Estonia. (I will be happy to supply my work sheet on these results if you contact me.)

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior

Amy Chua, a professor at the Yale Law School wrote the above titled article for the Wall Street Journal. The article stressed the very rigorous discipline Ms. Chua applies to her two daughters, not allowing any outside activities and focusing all of their attention on repeated or rote work. For the daughters and their Mother the long focused practice sessions seem to have worked.

Rereading the list of superior test-taking countries, I can not avoid the recognition that the first four locations had strong Asian mothers present. One can add the seventh place Japan to this list of enforcers of scholastic discipline. There were a number of western countries that also did well, at least three of these have long winters which are good for long study hours. I must admit as a “civilian Marine,” (the newly coined term for those who no longer wear the uniform), the use of rigorous discipline and working during dark hours rings true to me.

Over the years I have had successful investment experiences in practically every one of the thirteen high test-scoring countries. Byron Wien was concerned that in the long run, test scores could undermine the intellectual leadership of the US. Three of our family’s college students, attending good universities, report that often the leaders in their various classes come from Asian homes. I hope many of them stay here and produce for this society. As a Trustee of Caltech, I am conscious of the number of brilliant students who come here on student visas and are forced by our immigration policies to return home with the extensive knowledge that they learned here.

I wonder whether we need to put a higher value on those companies that can attract the brightest on a global basis. The ability to get young brains may be of more value than the companies’ current cost of capital and resources.

The Next Decade : Where We’ve Been…And Where We’re Going

George Friedman has recently published his latest book with the above title. I have been privileged to see his author’s note. I can not wait to read the whole book. However, he is focusing on the tensions within the US between our global, if you will, empire roles versus the roles as a republic. In the drive to produce higher test scores and the creation of a “brainy” society, the simplest way to do it is by enforced discipline that eliminates alternative actions. The risk, according to Friedman, is that we unconsciously replicate ancient Rome or other rigid societies at the expense of the sound alternatives which are the basis of our own Republic.

Perhaps our portfolios should be balanced between the most efficient producers and those who practice creative destruction or alternatives to the present order. These are some of the critical issues that long term endowments and family fortunes need to examine and balance.

Maybe education does work

My youngest son sent me an email which stated, “On January 8th 1835, the national debt was $0.00 (the only time this has happened). Makes you think what would have happened if we kept that balance.” This is from a child of the inflationary 1960s. Maybe either education or age is finally kicking into focus the challenges that will face him and his children’s lives.

In conclusion

There is a lot more to think about in setting investment policy than near term interest rates and forthcoming earnings per share.

What do you think?

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