NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
In terms of investing prowess, do graduates of economics and similar courses have an edge over the layman? Or is what they're teaching in school similar to what we get in investment management seminars and online in courses such as Money 101?
-- Saffron Cheng, San Francisco, Calif.
Many years ago, when legendary value investor Michael Price was still running the Mutual Shares fund, I interviewed him for an investing story for Money. We spoke at length about his views on the market and specific stocks and, then, just to get some background information to work into the piece, I asked him whether he had an MBA, a graduate finance degree or a professional credential such as a CFA (chartered financial analyst). His answer: "No. All I've got is my track record."
That experience taught me that one shouldn't automatically equate academic degrees or a long alphabet string of credentials (MBA, CFA, CFP, ChFC) with investing acumen.
Investing success is a hard-to-define blend
That's not to say that education, both in the hallowed halls of academe and through various professional organizations, isn't valuable. I think it can help investors hone existing skills and learn new ones.
But in the final analysis it seems to me that investing success is a hard-to-define blend of knowledge about investments, an intuitive feel for how markets work and how other investors think -- and having a healthy respect for one's own limitations. All of which is to say that you can be a whiz kid when it comes to financial theory, but that doesn't mean you'll be a terrific investor.
Indeed, I think that superior quantitative skills can sometimes create a climate of hubris that leads to costly mistakes in judgment, witness the 1998 blow-up of the Long-term Capital Management hedge fund that was run by two Nobel Laureates in Economics.
Based on my experiences as an economics student -- though undergraduate only and even then back in the antediluvian days of the early 70's -- I found that most of the curriculum revolved around theory and had very little to do with practical applications such as actual investing. Nothing wrong with that. I think universities should focus on educating students about the fundamentals of economics and finance. They can always go to Wall Street and pick up the practical experience later.
When you go to online courses like Money 101 (which cover these and a few other simple but important fundamentals) or other sites that have educational material about investing, you're going to get a lot less theory, if any, and a lot more in the way of practical advice.
Keep a few insights in mind
As to who is likely to be a better investor, one schooled in formal economics and finance courses versus a reasonably intelligent investor who picks up his or her knowledge online or through seminars or actual experience, I don't think anyone can really say.
In the end, I think investing success requires only a relatively modest amount of specific knowledge about markets and investments. The more important thing, in my opinion, is that you arrive at a few key insights.
Insights like: It's extremely difficult to outperform the market overall and maybe not worth trying (which is why I think some of the smartest investors go with index funds). And, the more moves you make in investing, the more likely you are to make mistakes (which is why I think the best investors focus on setting an appropriate mix of assets and then adhering to that mix rather than jumping from sector to sector or asset class to asset class).
And, finally, the higher your costs of investing, the lower your odds of success (which is why I believe the best investors keep trading and transaction costs down and stick to funds and other investments that have low annual expenses).
I don't think how you arrive at such insights is that important. What counts is that one way or another -- whether through studying economics in a classroom, checking out investing sites online or synthesizing it through first-hand experience -- you do. Because unless you come to understand these and a few other simple but important fundamentals, I don't think any form of education is going to be much help.
Walter Updegrave is a senior editor at MONEY Magazine and is the author of "Investing for the Financially Challenged." He also answers viewers' questions on CNNfn's Money & Markets at 4:40 PM on Monday afternoons.