Investors Need an Iron Stomach to Hold the Best Performing Stocks

Morgan Housel of The Motley Fool writes a good piece on how difficult it can be buy and hold the very best performing stocks over time. As Housel points out, the best performing individual stock from 1995-2015 was Monster Beverage — up 105,000% over that 20 year period. That return would have turned $10,000 into a cool $10 million.

But, as Housel points out, Monster has been an incredibly volatile stock, so volatile that most investors would not have been able to stay invested in the shares. He writes, Monster “traded below its previous all-time high on 94% of days during that period. On average, its stock was 26% below its high of the previous two years. It suffered four separate drops of 50% or more. It lost more than two-thirds of its value twice, and more than three-quarters once.”

And the pattern is not just with Monster, as Housel highlights. He looked at the top ten performing stocks over the past two decades and all of them “spent a majority of the time well below their previous high mark. They all had multiple declines of 50% or more. A few had multiple 70% drops.”

What can investors learn from this? Housel outlines three takeaways:

1) “Stories change, and nothing is perfect” – it’s easy to look at the best performing stocks today and think the story behind a firm’s success make total sense, but as Housel explains, what looks like a no-brainer, “slam-dunk” story today may not have looked that way when one studies a company’s actual history and the bumps in the road that all firms take.

2) “Investors underestimate how common and severe volatility is, especially among individual stocks” – investors need to understand that individual stocks can, and will, vary widely. If you can’t handle and accept that, you should be diversifying away that stock specific risk.

3) “Accepting this, even at the whole-market level, is the name of the game.” Housel concludes with a quote about Charlie Munger. Munger, when asked in 2009 about Berkshire Hathaway’s 50% decline, said he wasn’t at all concerned about the stock’s drop. Mr. Munger said “you can argue that if you’re not willing to react with equanimity to a market price decline of 50% two or three times a century you’re not fit to be a common shareholder, and you deserve the mediocre result you’re going to get compared to the people who can be more philosophical about these market fluctuations.”