John Muir: Speaking of the Herd

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Outside of work and preparing for the quarterly Uguisu Value newsletter (among plenty of other things going on!) I spend a fair amount of personal time reading. A number of wonderful books for value investors have been published in recent years — most notably I’m thinking of The Manual of Ideas and The Education of a Value Investor. In addition to reading investing books and annual reports, I like to mix in as much non-investing material as I can.

Recently I began reading a critical review of the famous environmental preservationist John Muir’s (1838-1914) writing. Not long after arriving in California, around the age of 30, Muir worked for a short while as a shepherd. He made the following observation about sheep (quote below). I’m sure there are not a few individual investors that end up in this situation with the vicissitudes of “the market” (or as we value investors prefer, “Mr. Market”). Muir’s depiction also reminds me of some of the institutional and HNWI investors that I pitched regarding a small-cap Japan activist fund. Recapitulating the investment merits of profitable companies trading at substantial discounts to tangible assets, to so-called sophisticated investors … while being grilled about macroeconomic risks and the very company-specific characteristics (smaller capitalization, obscurity, etc.) that make value investing attractive. Go figure.

Paraphrasing Muir:

Even sheep that have strayed from the flock huddle timidly and silently, basely human in their actions. Afraid of their freedom, not knowing what to do with it, and seeming glad to get back into their old familiar bondage.

It is worth mentioning that in fact Muir was fond of wild sheep.

Nostalgic for California this past winter, it was fun to see Muir’s name appear in Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice. Put that book on your reading list. A character in Sides’ story is a Melville. The joys of being a value investor and not stuck watching stock quotes.