Guy Spier, what has a bar to do with finding investment ideas?

I October 2019 I had the pleasure to interview Guy Spier of Aquamarine Funds in a series of interviews. Here you can find the full video of the interview and the transcript:

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Introduction

[00:00:00] Tilman Versch: Hello YouTube! We just learned what the bar has to do with his research process. So be curious about it and subscribe to our channel.

[00:00:18] Tilman Versch: Hello Guy.

[00:00:18] Guy Spier: Hello there.

[00:00:19] Tilman Versch: Welcome back to our interview.

[00:00:21] Guy Spier: Yes.

[00:00:21] Tilman Versch: This time we want to talk about process.

[00:00:24] Guy Spier: Yeah

[00:00:25] Tilman Versch: So, let’s start with the beginning.

[00:00:26] Guy Spier: Yeah

Where do you get your ideas from?

[00:00:27] Tilman Versch: Where do you get your ideas from?

[00:00:28] Guy Spier: Exactly, where do I get my ideas from. I thought you might ask how I get my ideas and the answer is with great difficulty. And I will give you an analogy that I used in my annual meeting, but I really think it’s true. So, I feel that the way people want to talk about their investing process is they want to put themselves into the shoes or into the mindset or describe themselves as being like a fighter pilot. Fighter pilots highly trained, has all the instruments right there, has this finely tuned machine and he selects the target, and he flies towards it, and he drops the precision bomb on the target. That is our idealized and subconscious idea of how an investor goes about selecting stocks and managing their portfolio.

But I think that a better model is of a drunk stumbling around in a bar trying to find the drink.

So, I want to give you a different idea and I hope that this doesn’t reflect badly on me. But I think that a better model is of a drunk stumbling around in a bar trying to find the drink. And he is trying to grab a drink, not a handle. And he is sort of stumbling around and his mind is all confused. I say that because we have a very bad model of how our brains work. And the reality is that our brains are and we are highly rational. And the worst is, I think, when you’re smart.

What do I mean by smart? I mean smart, good grades at things like mathematics and other subjects that require you to be highly focused so that develops the subject of sense that you’re like a fighter pilot. And so, you can start believing that through superior intelligence and analytical ability, that you can sort of hit the target. And I think a better self-image is of being a drunk. And if you perceive yourself as being a drunk in a bar, you’re going to set up different rules for yourself. What I am doing is I am trying to set up an environment in that bar such that when I finally lunge for the drink, or say it’s called the drinks in the analogy of the investment, I have lunged for a good one. So that process starts with just don’t do anything until the portfolio.

Select stocks that you can allow in the portfolio for an extraordinarily long time without looking at them too hard.

Don’t engage in trading fees. Allow stocks to live in the portfolio for an extraordinarily long time. Select stocks that you can allow in the portfolio for an extraordinarily long time without looking at them too hard. So, the process is all assuming, I am assuming that at some point I will be irrational. Or that I am continuously irrational. And I am trying to also set up my investing life and world in such a way that I don’t ever have to be smart.

I would argue that the abilities that one needed to bring Berkshire Hathaway from where it was today and where it was when it started to where it is today are far greater than the abilities that the current managers will need to bring Berkshire Hathaway from where it is today.

Going forwards you want to create an environment where you need less and less intelligence and ability over time. So that’s what I am trying to build in multiple ways around me. But specifically, to where do I get my investment ideas? Here’s another thing that I believe that all investors should throw out the window. So, I cannot, I must accept that I come from a particular background. I have a particular set of ideas and knowledge about the world in my head and I need to work from where I am, not where I’d like to be. I would tell you that if I was starting my investing career again, or if I was starting my business career again, and with the intent of becoming an investor, I would not have studied PPE at Oxford, and I possibly wouldn’t have done an MBA at Harvard Business School.

A course that I would very much liked to have done is called ‘Symbolic Systems’ at Stanford.

A course that I would very much liked to have done is called ‘Symbolic Systems’ at Stanford. It’s the same course that Reid Hoffman did and it’s a combination of computer science and then sort of general subjects around politics and psychology and sociology. I think that I’m at a huge disadvantage because that is a world that grew up mainly after I graduated from business school, and it is not a world that I have engaged with as much as I would’ve liked. I can’t start analyzing all the different parts of the world that I don’t know, there may be some extraordinary companies in Indonesia and there have been some extraordinary companies that have come out of Silicon Valley. So, I must start with the world that I know and work incrementally. I think that I must accept, and my investors must accept that that’s where I’m coming from.

But within that, where do my ideas come from? So, I am trying to look at business models that have moats that are growing to the extent that they have moats that are growing. I’m trying to get to know the managers, I’m trying to get to know the people who invest in those companies, I am trying to get more insight into whether it’s really the case that the moat is growing or not. I am trying to find other businesses where maybe the moat is growing better and faster.

And so, I am going from, if you consider the island of knowledge that I have and my circle of competence, I am trying to see where I can grow it into other directions. That involves many kinds of activities that I have only really started understanding well in a way that can really help me now.

So, when you ask where do my ideas come from, it comes from an acceptance of my own limitations but then work to expand my circle of competence in ways that I know how to do that.

So, when you ask where do my ideas come from, it comes from an acceptance of my own limitations but then work to expand my circle of competence in ways that I know how to do that. So just to summarize, or to share with you the places where that goes. So, what is, learn about new ideas and read about them.

But then, a new thing for me is develop relationships with other investors who know about other areas that I might want to learn about. So later this year I’m going to visit with Saurabh Madaan in Richmond Virginia. I mentioned earlier that I spent time with Josh Tarasoff, and I spent time with Nick Sleep. And developing those relationships is finding ways to add values in their lives, so help them, try, and understand what they’re interested in the world, and I see if I can help them. I have also discovered that my investors, not all of them, but some of them are extraordinarily interesting people. I didn’t spend enough time learning from them and there are some of my investors that I can really learn from, and I have started having some really good conversations with them.

So, talking to company management, not just about their businesses but trying to be a source of value in their lives and helping them with what they need to find, whether that’s help with their children, help with where to go on holiday, restaurant choice but also what’s going on in their business and what their professional challenges are.

And then something, for those of the people who watch this interview do not learn from my book that you should not speak to company management. One should, I simply, got that wrong. And if I write a sequel, or an extra couple of chapters to the book, that’s one of the first things that I will talk about. So, talking to company management, not just about their businesses but trying to be a source of value in their lives and helping them with what they need to find, whether that’s help with their children, help with where to go on holiday, restaurant choice but also what’s going on in their business and what their professional challenges are. Be a source of value in their lives so they can then reciprocate with insights into their businesses are always. Something I have figured out is human intelligence. So, I think that there are a lot of people who are acting with the belief that artificial intelligence, machine learning, other kinds of kind of number crunching approaches to the world are going to help them deliver better investment results and I believe that that’s not the case. I think that it’s going to be human intelligence and actually Berkshire Hathaway is a model for that. And I have been working hard to do that around me and so the main part of the process I would argue if you wanted me to summarize is investing in the people around you.

Invest in your surroundings, invest in people, help the people, help the people who will help me get insights into where to direct Aquamarine Funds and investments.

Creating goodwill is the expression I like to use. Invest in your surroundings, invest in people, help the people, help the people who will help me get insights into where to direct Aquamarine Funds and investments. Make them feel happy that Guy Spier exists. Make them feel happy that Aquamarine Fund exists. Make them wake up one day and feel compelled to send me a great insight on a great investment idea because they are genuinely grateful for things that I’ve done for them and value that I’ve delivered in their lives. I would argue that is the most important process.

How much time does Guy Spier spend thinking?

[00:10:46] Tilman Versch: Just now you talked about working together with other people. How much time do you spend sitting in a room and think for yourself, for example?

[00:10:59] Guy Spier: Not enough *laughs*. Pascal is the famous French mathematician who said that all of math’s problems come from the inability to simply sit in a room and think for oneself. That’s what this room is about, sitting in here and thinking for myself. And I will tell you that if I get half an hour a day, that’s really, really good. Really good. I think is important for viewers of this video community to think about is that we have this image- that I don’t know where it came from, that Warren Buffett is sitting in a dark room, just thinking. And you know, it’s perhaps not helped by Todd Combs saying that he reads 500 pages a day or something. And I think that again is something I learned over the last few years, Warren Buffett maybe spends more time thinking in a room now than he used to in the past. He used to go out a lot. Meet people, talk to people, get to know who they are, find out what insights they can give you, we know he used to travel to New York and go visit all sorts of people in their offices so I don’t think you can do this job well by just sitting in a room and thinking. I would argue that I travel a lot, but I think that I could do a better job at meeting people, meeting the right people.

I’ve invested in that, so I used not to be a client of an expert network, I’ve now become a happy client of expert networks which are basically dating services for industry experts. And the insight that I got though, that and one of the reasons why I was willing to use them is that I go through the expert networks, I work on a disclosed basis so I let the person on the other end of the phone know who I am, they are welcome to Google me. Some people used expert networks. They used them anonymously so the experts they get put in touch with know who they’re speaking to. I don’t do that.

And then moreover I try, if the person is interested, to develop a relationship with them, bring them into my circle of people. Often those people are interesting. They are often former CEO’s former CFO’s, former marketing officers of either the company that I’m investing in, or perhaps a competitor. And they are worthwhile people to know, and they can benefit.

I will tell you something that is perhaps again one of the more important things that I could say to the valued community – if I want to be an investor, I need to feel good about myself. I need to justify my existence on the planet. I need to justify my existence to the communities that I’m a part of. They need to genuinely feel like I’m adding value.

If I want to be an investor, I need to feel good about myself. I need to justify my existence on the planet. I need to justify my existence to the communities that I’m a part of. They need to genuinely feel like I’m adding value.

So, if we talk about investors, hopefully, I am delivering good returns, better than they could get elsewhere. And hopefully, I’m charging them less for that. That’s kind of the Lidl strategy or the Costco strategy applied to investing. But we also need to be value-added investors to the corporations that we invest in. And that means taking a genuine interest in the health of the corporations, their leaders, and their employees. And to think long term about those companies in ways that maybe the managers don’t have time to think. And that is both a moral imperative if we are to justify existence on the planet. It also is a way of making the world a better place. If we had good owners of businesses, then managers of businesses could think more about how to deliver to their stakeholders. So, we have an important role to play. There’s a style of aggressive activist investors that you get out of the Anglo-Saxon economies that I don’t think long term is value-added. That’s not helping us build better societies and stronger democracies.

How many companies does Guy Spier research every year?

[00:15:38] Tilman Versch: How many companies do you research every year? Do you have a rough number? And how many of them do you visit?

[00:15:49] Guy Spier: So, not enough is the simple answer. Having, having talked about human intelligence, I really enjoy running screens. I used to run screens on, on Capital IQ, I ended up deciding that I could not afford both Capital IQ and Bloomberg. And there were some things that I liked about Bloomberg more, I ended up sticking with them. Their screening is good.

So, I’m fully aware that there’s this concept of a company that screens well but is not actually a good investment. And I think that the world has become far more difficult for those of us who studied accounting because so much, so many of the businesses that do well, or that are extraordinary businesses today, come out horribly in the accounting. So, what is the point of analyzing them through accounting?

I had a conversation with a highly respected investor that you should interview, Jeremy Deal, who talks about learning about companies from podcasts. And I’ve shared with him a guy who runs a newsletter out of Taiwan called Ben Thompson, he runs a newsletter called ‘Stratechery’. I find myself having to read these things because the company accounts don’t give us what we’re asking for. Remind me of the question…

[00:17:21] Tilman Versch:  How many companies do you research and visit?

[00:17:24] Guy Spier: So, the reason why I went to screens is that screening is a way of glancing at a company and seeing what’s going on with it. And just to rewind a little bit on process or sort of like putting myself in the bar and trying to reach for a good drink, I’ll constantly see companies on screens that I think look interesting and I kind of filter them down in a couple of watchlists. And the first, the screens will throw out a few hundred companies but the watchlists go from like two hundred companies to 50 companies. I try to be discerning about moving them between those watchlists. And I try to look at those watchlists extremely infrequently.

So, I think that you could say that I have a broad universe of maybe 200 to 250 companies, something like that. But many of them are getting less than five minutes of my time, and so, I don’t know what kind of distribution it is but there is a small number of companies that I’m spending an awful lot of time with. There are many companies that I’m spending very, very little time with. And but I’d say the very broad universe is, is 500. But the ones that I really spend time with are maybe 20, 30.

There are many companies that I’m spending very, very little time with. And but I’d say the very broad universe is, is 500. But the ones that I really spend time with is maybe 20, 30.

Having said that, I think that there’s an enormous amount of fundamental analysis that I could have done over the last 20 years that I’ve not done. And mainly I would tell you Tilman, the reason for it is that there’s running an investment business and then there’s actually doing the investment research. And one of the greatest challenges that I’ve had is getting the investment business running well enough that I can spend my time on research. And I think that’s only really happened for me over the last year or two actually. It’s got something to do with scale. It’s got something to do with having the right staff.

I can tell you that getting regulated here in Switzerland was an enormous amount of work, it happened two or three years ago, and only now is everybody around me and myself comfortable. So, I think there’s a lot more that I can do there. And one of the things that I’ve learned is to do the analysis yourself but go find people who can help you do the analysis. A company whose shares seem to have imploded recently is, well I’m not going to name the name *laughs*. I was almost going to name the name but maybe that’s not a smart idea.

And one of the things that I’ve learned is to do the analysis yourself but go find people who can help you do the analysis.

But I realize that I didn’t understand their economics particularly well. So, rather than plow through their 10K’s or do endless internet searches I have gone straight out to an expert network, and I’ve said I want to find somebody who’s probably a former senior exec. And what of these three companies who can explain the global economics of the industry to me. So, analysis can also be reaching out to finding analysis. Find me somebody who can show me. You know you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but there’s a lot more that I can do on that front.

So, analysis can also be reaching out to finding analysis. Find me somebody who can show me.

When to research a company deeper

[00:20:47] Tilman Versch: What makes you put the company in this pocket of doing research on it and spending time to dig deeper into it?

[00:20:57] Guy Spier: So, I’m going to mention the name of a guy that I’m wondering how many in the value audience know. But he’s a really fascinating personality and I’ve no idea how I came across him. But, so, I discovered through reading probably Sports Illustrated or something that there’s a man called Dan Bilzerian. This guy needs no more promotion, I don’t know why I’m putting his name up but look up Dan Bilzerian. Now, amongst many things, he has a theory around women. So, when he has a party, his ideal ratio of women to men is sort of like 10 women to one man. And he basically says straight their interviews where he just says I’ve just found that it’s much easier to get a nice girlfriend if I get myself in environments where the ratio of cute women to men is 10:1. I wish I’d thought of that when I was not married and looking, that was something that I didn’t do, I went to places where there were 50:50.

I’ve just found that it’s much easier to get a nice girlfriend if I get myself in environments where the ratio of cute women to men is 10:1.

So, what do you do, you’re a drunk in a bar who wants to reach for a good drink? Well, one of the things you do is you go to the person who runs the bar before and you say listen, I’m going to be in the bar, I’m going to be drunk and you’re going to help me just to reach for good drinks. You’re going to take all the bad drinks and you’re going to put them far away. But all the good drinks, you’re going to put them within arm’s reach. So, what am I trying to do? I’m trying to find those quote – good drinks for good companies and put them within arm’s reach. And of course, it’s really hard to tell. And I think that other people have better skills in this regard so what I’m trying to do is to pull into these smaller and smaller watchlists, the things that are good companies that ought to do well. That where, if there’s something, some kind of price drop, or if there is some development, I am more likely to pick up on it and to buy into it. And that’s what’s sort of like pulling them in.

So, what am I trying to do? I’m trying to find those quote – “good drinks for good companies” and put them within arm’s reach.

So, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. In my case, it’s a rough and haphazard process. And I don’t know if being more disciplined about that will make it any better if you like. But that’s what I’m doing, I’m just trying when I can to walk around that bar and put the things that are more likely to taste good a little closer to me. That’s what I’m doing with those watchlists if you like.

But in a certain way, you know, be careful who you pick as your friends. You know those watchlists can exist in the minds of friends. So, why did I spend time with Nick Sleep and Josh Tarasoff? I think that they both have extraordinarily good filters. They have an interesting way of looking in the world, looking at the world. So, the companies that I discuss with them in a way are sort of keeping them, on, on a certain kind of a watchlist, a mental watchlist if you like, and making them more present in my mind, making it more likely that I will invest.

Having said that I’ve had many conversations mainly with Nick Sleep. Not so many with Josh Tarasoff on Amazon and I have never owned Amazon to my great shame. In a certain way, unrecognized cost, it’s the missed opportunities. But so, the watchlist, it doesn’t just exist on a spreadsheet or in a monitor, it also exists in the minds of the people that you hang out with. Who do you choose to hang out with?

How long does it take for Guy Spier to buy into a stock?

[00:24:47] Tilman Versch: How long does it take for you to grab a drink or buy into a stock?

[00:24:59] Guy Spier: So, the fastest that I remember was Bank of America where I read that Warren Buffett had given them $5bn and I instantly understood that’d de-risk the company. And made it extraordinarily cheap with no risk of bankruptcy. So that was very quick, that was within days.

But then there are companies where I have a similar kind of flash of insight but there are other aspects that I just find myself not able or willing to get comfortable with. So, this may not be public domain. But it took me a long time – more than six months to figure out that I ought to own Fiat, Chrysler at the time. Which has been a great winner for me. And so that took. And Bank of America has been a great winner to me, but one took one week, one took six months. I think it’s hard to tell, because if you’re genuinely interested in an industry then in a certain way, you’re doing research on it all the time if you like.

My big insight is to stop trying to absorb information from reading stuff. Now, there is nothing wrong with reading but combine it with a knowledge of the personalities and the people involved because then you kind of get a stereo vision and you see what’s being written about them, by them, and what’s being written in the industry and then you hear what they’re saying both publicly and privately and that becomes far, far better.

My big insight is to stop trying to absorb information from reading stuff. Now, there is nothing wrong with reading but combine it with a knowledge of the personalities and the people involved because then you kind of get a stereo vision and you see what’s being written about them, by them, and what’s being written in the industry and then you hear what they’re saying both publicly and privately and that becomes far, far better. And I’ve not, I just don’t think I’ve spent enough time talking to people actually and it is fun to talk to people so I need to find more opportunities to talk to them in the right places. And you know Omaha is an amazing place to meet people and talk to people.

I think that Tilman, so here’s an interesting thing and again something for your listeners or viewers. To go back to the idea of cloning. What part do you clone? I – and forgive me for mentioning him so many times but Nick Sleep is the most famous investor you’ve never heard of. He is extraordinarily successful, and he achieved an enormous amount of success without being very well known at all and he has been highly effective. But I am having learned at the altar of Warren Buffett, Warren Buffett, there’s a side to Warren Buffett that likes to be famous, that enjoys the crowds in Omaha. And I thought that that must have something to do with being a successful investor. So, to some degree, after writing the book, I sought out sort of opportunities to develop a fan base if you like because I thought that’s what was necessary. One of the problems with having lots of people who know who you are is that if I show up in Omaha, a lot of people want to talk to me. But I don’t have deep and interesting conversations with them, they all want to meet the guy who wrote the book, they want to press the flash and it’s hard to create the time to have real learning. So, if you have minor celebrity status, it can be a, I wouldn’t say lonely, but it can be alienating but it is not in that you’re alienated it’s that you’re distanced from normal conversation. And it’s in normal conversation that you get to learn about the world. So, I realized that anonymity can be a very useful way to learn about the world. And when you’re not anonymous, the conversations all turn into the same thing – they want to know about the same set of things that you wrote about.

If you are walking through a stage constantly, everything is being staged, you don’t have real interactions with people.

You know the famous story of Siddhartha is that he was a prince, but he disguised himself as a common man. He disguised himself as a common man so he could have real conversations, and I think the point that I’m making to you is that being well known is not actually a benefit when it comes to being a good investor. In fact, it can be a great cost because you can’t get real information. And it’s interesting for me that Charlie Munger likes to travel economy class, and almost in semi-anonymity because he learns things about the world that he doesn’t learn if he’s travelling privately or first class, where now the world’s a stage. If you are walking through a stage constantly, everything is being staged, you don’t have real interactions with people. And so, I went through a phase after my book, I believe, where I was having less and less real conversations with people and now, I’m finding ways to reset that. Partly through the expert networks and partly through various Jeffersonians dinners that I’ve had. So, when I put together a Jeffersonians meal, I pull together nine to 12 people in a private room where there’s only one conversation around the table and everybody learns from each other, and you learn an enormous amount. And so, I found ways to get that back actually. And but more conversations, real conversations with real people

How does Guy Spier limit his holdings?

[00:30:50] Tilman Versch: How do you limit holdings? When is it enough that the percentage of a portfolio for a certain holding, and how do you protect yourself from selling compounders too early?

I think that my problem is not selling compounders too early, it’s not selling non-compounders.

[00:31:00] Guy Spier: Yeah, exactly. I think that my problem is not selling compounders too early, it’s not selling non-compounders. So, where does the simple insight come from, not self-compounders, this is a study that I read about 20 years ago in which they picked dozens of… well this appeared in the Wall Street Journal and I’m sure that Jason Zweig has written about this but they were doing studies of portfolios of some brokerage firm. And it turned out that dead people, so people where they had died and the portfolio had run for a few years before they distributed the funds and the portfolio did often way better than live people. They started asking themselves ‘how is this possible?’.

So, the reason why is that if you leave, take a random portfolio, and do nothing with it, it will outperform many, many portfolios even if you just run it statistically. But then when you examine those portfolios and ask why that portfolio outperformed, my memory of the article and it influenced me a lot, was that in every portfolio there would be one or two bankruptcies, companies that went to zero and there’d be like the vast majority of the portfolio where the company did absolutely nothing for a decade. But then there’d be one or two companies which were rocket ships which did 100x. And those were the companies that delivered all the returns. And so, if you apply that to, if I apply that in my own life, that’s this idea of just let your winners run.

Just let your winners run.

So, the idea of portfolio rebalancing is a bad idea. You’re selling your winners and buying your losers potentially. And so, I’ve taken that idea on board very, very strongly and I’m very, very reticent to sell anything, to do any moves in the portfolio. I think that I often buy things. So, from time to time, I buy things that are a solid double or triple but they’re not the world’s great businesses. And there I should be far more trigger happy and what will happen is that I will own it for way too long. I mean that was the case with me with General Motors for example, where I got some returns out of it, but it took too long for me to realize that this was never going to be a long-term compounded.

Develop a habit of just owning forever.

So, my answer to your question is: First, develop a habit of just owning forever. And there I’m just learning the lesson of Warren Buffett, you know he tries, their favorite holding period is forever. And then actually be very reticent to buy businesses that are not long-term compounders.

When do you sell a stock?

[00:33:55] Tilman Versch: Yeah, interesting. You said you were very cautious investor. What makes you feel uncomfortable with a company and sell?

[00:34:08] Guy Spier: I think that first I’ve done it wrong too many times. But what I really ought to have done in the case of Horsehead was realize that the management was gambling with all the shareholder’s money. And it would’ve been hard for me to see but there was in retrospect indications.

So, I think that the minute I realize that the management’s interests are not aligned with mine. That really is the time to sell, pretty much, if you’re only selecting, so I would anyway only select a business where I think that the moat is at least the same but hopefully it’s improving. So, you know if you’ve got that going on for you, you feel like I ought to be able to hold this business for the rest of time. Now the focus is on the management. And management doesn’t wake up every day and say, ‘I’m going to get things wrong, they want to try and get things right. But the minute you realize that they’re trying to get things right on a different timescale, they have, their interests have diverged from mine because they own different security. Or they’re focused on taking cash out of the business because they’re getting a divorce, whereas I’m focused on them leaving the cash in the business because that’s how we’ll all make money long term. When there’s a divergence like that, that is probably the right time to sell, not that I’ve been successful in implementing that much of the time, so.

But the minute you realize that they’re trying to get things right on a different timescale, they have, their interests have diverged from mine because they own a different security. Or they’re focused on taking cash out of the business because they’re getting a divorce, whereas I’m focused on them leaving the cash in the business because that’s how we’ll all make money long term. When there’s a divergence like that, that is probably the right time to sell

Conclusion

[00:35:38] Tilman Versch: Thank you very much for the second part of our interview.

[00:35:41] Guy Spier: Yeah.

[00:35:43] Tilman Versch: It was fun.

Guy Spier: *laughs*

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Tilman is a very enthusiastic, long-term investor. Over the last years he has taught himself important investing concepts autodidactically. He tries to combine a positive climate and environmental impact with his investments.
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