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Posts Tagged ‘Philip A Fisher’

In the Introduction to my 2003 copy of Philip A. Fisher’s Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits and Other Writings, his son, Kenneth L. Fisher, recounts a story about his father that has stuck with me since I first read it. For me, it speaks to Phil Fisher’s eclectic genius, and quirky sense of humor:

But one night in the early 1970’s, we were together in Monterey at one of the first elaborate dog-and-pony shows for technology stocks – then known as “The Monterey Conference” – put on by the American Electronics Association. At the Monterey Conference, Father exhibited another quality I never forgot. The conference announced a dinner contest. There was a card at each place setting, and each person was to write down what he or she thought the Dow Jones Industrials would do the next day, which is, of course, a silly exercise. The cards were collected. The person who came closest to the Dow’s change for the day would win a mini-color TV (which were hot new items then). The winner would be announced at lunch the next day, right after the market closed at one o’clock (Pacific time). Most folks, it turned out, did what I did – wrote down some small number, like down or up 5.57 points. I did that assuming that the market was unlikely to do anything particularly spectacular because most days it doesn’t. Now in those days, the Dow was at about 900, so 5 points was neither huge nor tiny. That night, back at the hotel room, I asked Father what he put down; and he said, “Up 30 points,” which would be more than 3 percent. I asked why. he said he had no idea at all what the market would do; and if you knew him, you knew that he never had a view of what the market would do on a given day. But he said that if he put down a number like I did and won, people would think he was just lucky – that winning at 5.57 meant beating out the guy that put down 5.5 or the other guy at 6.0. It would all be transparently seen as sheer luck. But if he won saying, “up 30 points,” people would think he knew something and was not just lucky. If he lost, which he was probable and he expected to, no one would know what number he had written down, and it would cost him nothing. Sure enough, the next day, the Dow was up 26 points, and Father won by 10 points.

When it was announced at lunch that Phil Fisher had won and how high his number was, there were discernable “Ooh” and “Ahhhh” sounds all over the few-hundred-person crowd. There was, of course, the news of the day, which attempted to explain the move; and for the rest of the conference, Father readily explained to people a rationale for why he had figured out all that news in advance, which was pure fiction and nothing but false showmanship. But I listened pretty carefully, and everyone he told all that to swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Although he was socially ill at ease always, and insecure, I learned that day that my father was a much better showman than I had ever fathomed. And, oh, he didn’t want the mini-TV because he had no use at all for change in his personal life. So he gave it to me and I took it home and gave it to mother, and she used it for a very long time.

Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits and Other Writings is, of course, required reading for all value investors. I believe the Introduction to the 2003 edition, written by Kenneth Fisher, should also be regarded as required reading. There Kenneth [Edit:, an investment superstar in his own right,] shares intimate details about Phil from the perspective of a son working with the father. As the vignette above demonstrates, Phil understood human nature, but was socially awkward; he understood the folly of the narrative, but was prepared to provide a colorful one when it suited him; and he understood positively skewed risk:reward bets in all aspects of his life, and had the courage to take them, even if it meant standing apart from the crowd. What is most striking about this sketch of Phil Fisher is that it could just as easily be a discussion of Mike Burry or Warren Buffett. Perhaps great investors are like Leo Tolstoy’s happy families:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

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