The Art & Science of Portfolio Design
by Mark Robertson, Better Investing, August 2002
“It still holds true that man is most uniquely human when he turns obstacles into opportunities.” — Eric Hoffer (1902-83), U.S. philosopher. Reflections on the Human Condition.
Portfolio design. Art or science? Or both? We build our portfolios with the expectation they’ll bridge to desired outcomes and financial independence. Perhaps visionary artist, scientist and Renaissance Man Leonardo da Vinci can inspire some insights on portfolio design?
The term renaissance literally means “rebirth” and was first used in 1855 by French historian Jules Michelet. The Renaissance was a period of intellectual revival, roughly from the 14th through the 16th century, and marked the transition from medieval to modern times. This period is regarded as a time of intellectual ferment that laid the foundation for future progress.
Some historians suggest the Renaissance was indeed the birth of modern humanity after a long period of decay. Modern scholars have since debunked the idea that the Middle Ages were dark and dormant.
Parallels to Our Current Stock Market?
The last two years have not been kind to investors. It’s a massive challenge to find solace in returns that haven’t receded as much as the market in general. Declines are still that — declines. In some ways, the decline of the last two years has been more severe than what was experienced in 1973-74. Experienced investors often describe their 1970’s experience as a sort of investing dark ages. The high inflation rates and recessionary conditions must have seemed interminable at the time.
But [our community of] investors who have “been there” seem to focus on something completely different. During a recent presentation in Cleveland, a gentleman used our question-and-answer session to share how everything he did during the 1970s — a systematic implementation of buying good companies at good prices — was merely the launch pad for what happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Thomas O’Hara speaks of the period in the same tone of voice and same life experience.
Some would have us believe we’re at the doorstep of another dark age. The last two years are their evidence. I believe the renaissance of American enterprise that ignited during the 1980s and caught fire during the 1990s is merely pausing to catch its breath.
Unleashing Leonardo — 500 Years Later
In 1502 da Vinci proposed building one of the largest bridges in the world for the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.The Sultan wished to span the Golden Horn, an inlet between the Turkish cities of Pera and today’s city of Istanbul. To the astonishment of the Ottoman court, the proposed design took the form of a giant arch. After conferring with advisers, the sultan responded with what seemed like commonsense — an arch that big would collapse in the middle. He declined the proposal.
In his book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb shares his perspective on seven principles drawn from a study of the man and his methods. The first principle is Curiosita — an insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.
The elements of portfolio design are the continuous selection (and accumulation) of quality companies and the continuous development of expected returns for the holdings that serve as our bridges. Be continuously curious.