"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" is a beautiful, not-very-useful book

This is a review of "Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" by Philip A. Fisher. You can find all my previous book reviews here. If you're interested in buying a copy, I hope you'll consider using my Amazon Associates referral link.

In my May review of the "Masters in Business" podcast I mentioned that the host asks his guests for book recommendations, and one extremely common recommendation is "Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits," by Philip A. Fisher. In it, the legendary fund manager describes his investment philosophy and, in great depth, his strategy for selecting stocks he believes will dramatically increase in price over a period of many years.

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" is a book about late-1950's America

It is rare to come across a book that is so strongly rooted in a particular time and place. When reading "Pride and Prejudice" you notice some quirks of English law (like perpetual entails) but you basically get the idea that it's a story about a bunch of young people growing up and getting married.

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" is not like that. Here's Fisher writing about labor unions:

"In this day of widespread unionization, those companies that still have no union or a company union probably also have well above average labor and personnel relations. If they did not, the unions would have organized them long ago. The investor can feel rather sure, for example, that Motorola, located in highly unionized Chicago, and Texas Instruments, Inc., in increasingly unionized Dallas, have convinced at least an important part of their work force of the company's genuine desire and ability to threat its employees well. Lack of affiliation with an international union can only be explained by successful personnel policies in instances of this sort."

That is an almost-unrecognizable vision of the American labor movement, but it's listed as one of the most important considerations when deciding whether to invest in a company!

Needless to say, an investor today should not base their decisions on 1958's union environment, which we now know was almost literally the peak of union membership as a percentage of the American workforce.

This is also a book about America as a manufacturing powerhouse. Fisher describes with wonder the almost-miraculous invention of titanium and exciting new uses for aluminum. Even DDT gets a nod as an exciting new insecticide, guaranteed to increase American agricultural production for many years to come (it's now illegal).

Importantly, Fisher is describing a world where the only investment choices for working Americans are actively-managed mutual funds and stock brokers. Because of that, the book can be read in two ways: if you're an active manager of a mutual fund, it's advice on how to do your job. If you're in investor, it's advice on how to select an active fund manager: pick one who agrees with Philip A. Fisher!

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" provides no useful information about picking stocks

If you picked up a book like Michael Covel's "Trend Following," and read it cover to cover, you could start trading stocks using the strategies in that book.

You'd lose a lot of money, perhaps slowly at first, and then all at once, but the book does give you instructions on how to trade according to Covel's theories.

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" isn't really like that. Fisher's strategy requires you to gather information about companies that is not publicly available. I don't mean "insider" information, but simply information that is not knowable without spending a lot of time hunting down employees, customers, vendors, and competitors and communicating with them at length. It's a strategy that could only be followed by a wealthy, well-connected mutual fund manager with a lot of money to invest.

The problem, of course, is that identifying the disciple of Philip A. Fisher (the author died in 2004) who truly and correctly follows his investment principles is impossible in advance. The successful fundamental fund manager will naturally say that he "correctly" applied Fisher's strategy, while his unsuccessful competitors "incorrectly" applied it, and give you all sorts of reasons why. Unfortunately, there's no reason to believe past performance is any indicator of future results.

Fisher has some interesting insights about dividends

Fisher makes two interesting arguments in his discussion of whether dividend-paying stocks are better or worse investments than companies that retain most or all of their profit for further investment.

The first is a straightforward mathematical insight that's frequently glossed over: the dividend yield that should matter to you is the yield on the price you purchased a stock at, not its current price. If a company pays the same 2% of its share price in dividends, but its share price quadruples over 15 years, the lucky owner over that time period will be earning an 8% yield on the price she paid for it, despite the stock never paying a "high" dividend at any point in the entire period.

The second point has to do with transaction costs. The high historical stock market yields you frequently see quoted in investing propaganda require the reinvestment of all dividends paid. If you, quite rightly, plan to reinvest all your dividends, you have three problems: first, until very recently, fixed commissions on stock purchases meant it was as expensive to make small purchases as large ones. If you immediately reinvest dividends, purchase commissions eat up a higher percentage of your capital. If you wait to invest a large amount, you suffer from having more time out of the market, losing some of the benefits of compounding.

The second problem is that it can be cumbersome to reinvest dividends because of the need to buy integer values of stocks.

And third, you also have to find a stock to invest in! It may be your current stocks have already gone up too much in value to be good candidates for further investment, which means you have to find something new to buy. That friction imposes another transaction cost. Retained earnings reinvested in a quality business, on the other hand, eliminate all those transaction costs by (hopefully) increasing further the value of your existing shares.

Basically, Fisher is not a big fan of dividends.

Conclusion: read this book for nostalgia, not for advice

This may sound like I'm being harsh on the author: after all, what period was he supposed to write about if not the period he was living in?

On the contrary, I actually found "Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" to be a beautifully written description of the world our Baby Boomer leaders grew up in. When Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again, this is the America he has in mind: heavily unionized, highly-paid, a manufacturing powerhouse, with exciting research developments that would only years later prove to be toxic to humans and the environment. Men work in labs and factories, women purchase previously-unheard-of consumer goods, and during periods of economic recession the government runs a deficit of "25 to 30 billion dollars."

It sounds like a lovely place to visit, but I'm not sure I'd like to live there, and I definitely wouldn't recommend investing as if you did live there today!