Books: A minor variation on the old 'moving average' technique

Consistently capturing the upside potential of the stock market is more useful than ever in volatile times. This author shares his secret. Does it work for John McLaren?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Asquadron of 'buts' is airborne and heading your way, so before the bombs start raining down, let's get quickly on with the positives. Big Money, Little Effort is a bright, breezy read. The style is chatty and approachable. There's plenty of solid common sense, such as: remember that asset management salespeople are just that - salespeople; you can manage your own money just as well as the pros - maybe better; don't try to pick individual stocks or be too sophisticated - choose a simple indicator-based system and religiously invest and disinvest whenever the indicators indicate. This way, you should get most of the upside, less of the downside, and can put your feet up the rest of the time.

It feels a bit like a health check, where you have to endure the ritual incantation of 'drink less, give up smoking, lose weight, exercise more'. Yeah, we know that, but it doesn't mean we don't need to hear it once in a while.

In the financial arena, the snag for many of us is that we just can't be fagged to do even the one hour a week that Shipman prescribes. In fact, picking an ISA once a year feels a bit like hard work. Handing our hard-earned shekels over to a spotty kid armed with little experience, no more computing power than your laptop, and a bonus habit to feed may make little sense, but - like changing the oil in the your car - only the keen and committed can be bothered to do it themselves.

Before getting to his own prescription, the author executes a series of elegant curtsies to other gurus, especially the widely admired Michael O'Higgins, whose 'Dogs of the Dow' system involves even less physical effort than Shipman's own. O'Higgins' system, unveiled in 1991, consisted simply of first picking the 10 top-yielding stocks in the Dow 30 and investing equal amounts in the five with the lowest prices. The portfolio would then be left untouched for a year, when it would be reshuffled, with the successes sold and the latest canines admitted.

This approach historically outperformed the Dow by around 5%. On 8 March the Financial Times ran a piece showing what would have happened if an investor had taken the same approach to the FT30 over the past five years. The average outperformance turned out to be 30%, albeit bloated by a freakish 93% in 2004.

Shipman cheerfully admits that his own system is a pretty minor variation of the 'moving average' approach, for whose invention he credits Richard Donchian.

To calculate a moving average, you begin by taking the weekly closing price of all the stocks in any index, then average each individual component stock's closing prices over a number of weeks (Shipman recommends 30) and compare it with the same average over a longer period of, say, 50 weeks.

If, overall, the 30-week averages are higher than the 50, so that there's upward market momentum, you buy an index tracker; if they're lower, you sell and go into cash until the two sets of averages reverse positions. The beauty is - that's it.

Which is where the 'buts' start. There's not much need to read the rest of the book because - that's it. Not that it'll take you too long, because, once you exclude acknowledgments, intro, full-page charts, index, recommended further reading and some of the most desperately padded appendices I've ever encountered, a rough count suggests the main text runs to less than 80 pages (of 272).

If Shipman is right in his rather surprising claim that his first book briefly knocked The Da Vinci Code off its sales perch, the title of this new volume is absolutely spot-on.

There's another but too, and it's a rum one. Shipman reasonably recommends never buying financial advice from anyone without asking how much they're worth. Yet for all the talk of a personal fortune, of the sale of his hedge fund, of the racehorses, the poker, and of dangling a toe in the warm waters of the Mediterranean from the deck of his yacht, he's remarkably coy about how much lolly he has actually made. He certainly doesn't seem to be anywhere near Rich List territory.

I'm left with the feeling that here's a nice guy who left school at 16, by 1996 had made more dosh than he'd ever imagined possible, and promptly decided to live the lottery-winner's dream of never working again. A decade on, he's in his mid-40s and, for all the claims of a champagne lifestyle, he's a wee bit bored. Staring at your bank balance - however fat - doesn't exactly fill the rest of week, and the actuaries will be telling Shipman that he has got another 40 years of this to get through.

To make matters worse, the arrival in recent years of the locust swarms of private equity and hedge-fund boys (not to mention a minor infestation of oligarchs) has made tycoon status and the recognition that goes with it more elusive.

There's talk of City consultancies, but since he cheerfully volunteers that all his knowhow goes into his business, why wouldn't they just buy a few copies?

He's clearly talented, and probably a very nice guy, but I wonder if what Shipman needs most is the non-web version of Second Life.

Big Money, Little Effort: A winning strategy for profitable long-term investment

Mark Shipman

Kogan Page £14.99

John McLaren is chairman of the Barchester Group and founder of Masterprize, the international competition for symphonic composition.

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