Phil Town’s rule #1 investing

Rule #1 by Phil Town is not a general personal finance book, and it’s not a book for beginning investors — it turns a lot of conventional investment wisdom on its ear. The book explores a philosophy ascribed to Columbia University’s Benjamin Graham (author of The Intelligent Investor), and popularized by Graham’s student, Warren Buffet (perhaps the most successful investor of all time).

What is The Rule? “There are only two rules of investing: Rule #1: Don’t lose money […] and Rule #2: Don’t forget Rule #1.” Town writes: “Most Americans are trapped in mutual funds that, at best, ride the waves of the market.” He believes that his method can help investors break free from these cycles.

At its heart, Town’s philosophy is simply “buy low, sell high”. He’s not pushing a get-rich-quick scheme (though at times, especially early in the book, that’s exactly how it comes across). But he’s certainly encouraging his readers to abandon traditional “get rich slowly (and surely)” techniques.

Town argues that there are three myths of investing:

  1. You have to be an expert to manage money.
  2. You can’t beat the market.
  3. The best way to minimize risk is to diversify and hold for the long term.

Dollar-cost averaging will not protect you, he says. These statements may make some nervous about Town’s philosophy. In the recent Wall Street Journal article about personal finance books, one expert cautioned:

“Any book that suggests it has a new way to riches should probably be a little suspect,” says Prof. Kenneth Froewiss, a finance professor at New York University Stern School of Business. A good book about personal finance, he says, always elaborates on three simple themes: Save early, know your risk tolerance, and diversify.

Town says that “knowing you will make money comes from buying a wonderful business at an attractive price”. If you can find a wonderful business, know what it’s worth as a business, and then buy it at a discount, you will become rich. If you repeat these steps, you will become very rich. “The price of a thing is not always equal to its value,” he says, arguing against Efficient Market Theory. He points to the recent Tech Bubble as an example. (As you might expect, Town doesn’t care for A Random Walk Down Wall Street.)

Rule #1 describes how to evaluate the investment potential of a business. You want:

  • A company that means something to you (you know its inner workings because you’re passionate about it).
  • A company that has a wide moat, or protective buffer (whether this is a competitive advantage, a huge cash reserve, or an exclusive license).
  • A company with excellent management.
  • A company with a margin of safety (that is, a company priced so low that even if you miscalculate its target price, you’re not going to lose money).

Using Town’s method, an investor creates a watch list of companies that meet each of these four criteria. Each company’s financials are checked against five measures of fiscal health (return on investment, revenue growth rate, earnings-per-share growth rate, equity growth rate, and free-cash-flow growth rate) over periods of one, five, and ten years. If a company’s numbers look good, the investor develops a target price for it.

And then the waiting begins.

When the market price reaches 50% below what the calculations show it ought to be, the investor fully commits himself. Sort of. Ideally, says Town, you would hold a company’s stock forever. In reality, he argues that there are a couple of times to sell:

  • When a company has ceased to be wonderful.
  • When the market price is above the sticker price.

It is here that the Rule #1 system begins to resemble day trading. When you’ve found your ideal business, and when it passes the Rule #1 criteria and is selling at half-off the sticker price, you begin buying and selling the stock based on market conditions. You use a set of tools to make your decisions, constantly moving in and out of the stock. You’re committed to the stock for the long haul, it’s true, but you’re attempting to use market timing to maximize your returns. (Town stresses that these tools should not be used to find and value stocks, but only to time the re-purchase (or sale) of a stock to which you’re already committed.)

The book jacket incorrectly touts this as a “fifteen-minute-a-week” system (which makes it sound even more like a get-rich-quick scheme). The author, though, is clear that more time is needed to make this work. He admits that constructing a watch list takes several hours per company. It’s only after the watch list is created that the time investment declines.

I can’t recommend this book, but that’s because it’s beyond my ken. I don’t hate it. In fact, I find the ideas fascinating, even plausible, but I lack both the experience and the expertise to evaluate Town’s system. It seems to be made of equal parts sound advice and gimmicks. I’d love to read a review from somebody more firmly rooted in investment theory.

One saving grace — and it’s a big one — is that the system includes a built-in escape hatch. By using the “margin of safety”, you are buying heavily discounted stocks of good companies. It’s unlikely that they could fall further. (But not impossible.)

For more information on Rule #1, check the following websites:

  • Rule One Investor is the book’s official site. It includes additional information, including handy calculators. (Which is good, because much of this system requires number-crunching.) Free registration required.
  • The Rule #1 Blog is author Phil Town’s personal site where he answers questions and provides additional insight. I like the fact that Town makes himself publically available. This, too, makes me less inclined to classify this as a “get rich quick” scheme.
  • A review of the book at Fat Pitch Financials also seems ambivalent about the system. The author writes “I really wish Phil would have shared more information about his past performance using his investment techniques.” I agree.
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