Review & Outlook

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The Use and Misuse of Investment One-Liners

10 March, 2016 by Ben O'Brien in Commentary

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” said Shakespeare. Well, actually he didn’t quite say it himself but put it in the mouth of one of his characters Polonius in Hamlet. Polonius was a great dispenser of one-liners. He also said “To thine own self be true” and “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” However, Polonius was also a decidedly unreliable figure. He was a bit of a windbag, and a conniving and ineffective character in the play. So what is Shakespeare trying to say about these one-liners?

Giving memorable and pithy lines to so unsympathetic a figure is a typical Shakespearean move, sowing ambiguity in order to demonstrate the two-sided nature of things. Yes, one-liners can be profound, but they can also be glib, a kind of ersatz wisdom. One-liners, when misused, rather than provoking more rigorous though, act as a substitute for it. Aphorisms always walk this line.

Just as in literature, one-liners are popular in the investment world. Warren Buffett is beloved for his folksy sayings as much as for his business accomplishments. Sometimes people focus too much on one-liners. The great Victorian economic writer Walter Bagehot complained, “Am I to be remembered, like a Frenchman, simply for bon mots?” He has been, mostly.

I too am a fan of investment one-liners (or two- or three-liners) and have compiled a list of some favorites below. Some are profound and some are glib. You can decide which are which:


You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”

– Warren Buffett


There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.

—Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life of Johnson


Buy your stocks the way you buy your groceries rather than the way you buy your perfume.

– Benjamin Graham


Few subjects lend themselves so well to metaphysical reasoning, high-falutin’ language and general obfuscation.

– Benjamin Graham, writing about valuation


The whole structure of stock market quotations contains a built-in contradiction. The better a company’s record and prospects, the less relationship the price of its shares will have to their book value. But the greater the premium above book value, the less certain the basis of determining its intrinsic value–i.e., the more this “value” will depend on changing moods and measurements of the stock market.

– Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor


[An adviser’s] chief value to their clients lies in shielding them from costly mistakes.

– Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor


Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.

– Warren Buffett


Buy when there’s blood is in the streets.

– Nathan Mayer Rothschild


Managing money is as much about managing yourself as it is about managing stocks and bonds.

— Mark O’Brien


You should invest in a business that even a fool can run, because someday one will.

– Warren Buffett


I like to go for cinches. I like to shoot fish in a barrel. But I like to do it after the water has run out.

– Warren Buffett


Never invest in any idea you can’t illustrate with a crayon.

– Peter Lynch


You can find good reasons to scuttle your equities in every morning paper and on every broadcast of the nightly news.

– Peter Lynch


The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelope our future.

— J.M. Keynes


How can a soul be a merchant? What relation to an immortal being have the price of linseed, the brokerage on hemp? Can an undying creature debit petty expenses and charge for carriage paid? The soul ties its shoes; the mind washes its hands in a basin. All is incongruous.

— Walter Bagehot


Money is like muck, not good unless spread.

— Francis Bacon


Although wealth may not bring happiness, the immediate prospect of it provides a wonderfully close imitation.

— Patrick O’Brian


Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship, the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.

— Peter Drucker


Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.

– Albert Einstein


The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.

– Albert Einstein