x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

My imaginary search for investing profit

In a new column starting this week, we use a fictitious £15,000 to create and track a portfolio of stock investments.

It is entirely possible that I am slightly better off than I know, which, as my bank managers in the UAE and the UK could confirm, isn't saying a lot. The problem is, I have no way of finding out. The pitiful story of personal financial incompetence that is my life enjoyed the briefest of hopeful upturns about a decade ago, when an equally delusional friend and I decided we would give up our day jobs and become day traders, surfing our way to a fortune on the highs and lows of the equity markets. In those days, everyone was at it, revelling in the new freedoms afforded by the ever-faster internet, laughing in the face of the millennium bug and trading their way to personal fortunes during their lunch breaks. Or so we read. A get-rich-quick scheme that involved nothing like work, or even leaving the house? Loafers both, it appealed to us. How hard, we reasoned, could it be? After a few minutes of intensive research we stumbled on what we thought was a secret of Warren Buffett-like proportions. We even invented a Buffett-like quote to justify our thinking: "If you follow the herd you will end up at the abattoir." Fortunes were being made - and lost - in the bubbling cauldron of the dotcom boom, but we decided on a different tack - and, in ignorance, brilliance. Unknown to us (or, to be fair to us, to anyone at the time) the dotcom bubble was about to burst. We had noticed that many old-school stocks - mainly boring old manufacturers, companies that actually bothered to make stuff - habitually slumped in the last hours of the trading week but would often recover in the new dawn of the following week. Fired by this revelation, we drew up a list of 20 FTSE companies that fitted our simplistic profile. Armed with nothing more sophisticated than a pencil and a copy of the Financial Times, we planned to execute imaginary trades with an even more imaginary £100,000 (Dh534,000), honing our skills and proving our theory for an entire month. By the second week, however, we made so much pretend money we decided it would be madness not to start trading for real. That week we studied our 20 targets even more closely - perhaps for as much as half an hour. We also discovered that setting up a trading account with only £10,000 to play with - all we could muster - was a bit of a challenge, but we finally found a broker prepared to humour us. We decided to say nothing to our partners, figuring they would be happier post-dating their approval once we made money. Our first weekend went brilliantly to plan. Come Monday morning, we watched the prices of several of our picks rise, not spectacularly but, gratifyingly, pretty much as we had expected. As planned, we sold a couple of hours into the trading day. And right there came the dangerously addictive buzz generally unknown to wage slaves like us. We weren't rich - £10,000 of seed will grow only so much corn - but we convinced each other that if we went on like this we could cover both mortgages every month in a two-hour working week. Loafer heaven. Greed was good, we agreed. What's more, we seemed to be good at this. Ah, hubris. We were going to stick to our plan for at least four trial weeks but, as the next Friday approached, we couldn't help wishing we had £100,000 to play with. Our profit would be tenfold, our subsequent investments even larger and our retreat to country estates sooner rather than later. Capital was clearly the only difference between us and the Buffetts of this world. Investing was child's play, provided the child had a sufficiently bulging kitty. We would borrow the money, we decided. Even though interest rates were eye-wateringly high, we figured we were onto such a winner, we could cover the payments and still build our investment capital. What on earth could go wrong? We found out the following week, though luckily not before my bank manager had impolitely declined to bankroll our expansion. When I explained what I wanted the money for he was so amused he actually called in a colleague and had me go through my pitch again, purely for the entertainment value. "Now, if you'd said you wanted the money for a yacht," he chuckled, "we'd probably have said yes." Really? For a second, I was tempted, but "Ha!", I thought. "I'll be buying the yacht soon enough, laughing boy - and you won't be coming to the launch party." Neither would I, it turned out. That Friday, none of our stocks dipped below the target "buy line" we had set. Who knew why? Maybe if we'd read the FT a little closer we might have seen it coming. What would Buffett, a man for the long game, have done? Almost certainly nothing. What did we do? Like an airline faced with a volcanic ash cloud, we simply downgraded our safety margins and charged ahead. Come Monday, the few gains we made were insignificant and outweighed by the buys that had lost ground. Now was the time to hold our nerve, but panic ensued and we broke ranks like Napoleon's right flank at Waterloo - with equally predictable results. Unable to wait until Friday, we threw our plan and caution to the winds, buying and selling in a chaotic frenzy throughout the week. We finally walked away when the value of our holdings was less than the cost of trading in them. To this day, I think we are still the proud owners of a couple of stocks, though neither of us can remember which ones they were or how to go about finding out. So now, a new beginning, as I embark on a fresh adventure in online trading. I am certainly older, but whether I am any wiser remains to be seen. This time, however, I will stick to fantasy, so any losses will be limited to my pride. Starting next week, I will take an imaginary £15,000 and find out just how easy it is for an ill-informed outsider to win - or lose - money on the stock market. My playground will be the FTSE100, which even the experts have struggled to milk over the past few years of turmoil - last year, the annual return was 22.1 per cent; in 2008, a dismal minus 30.9 per cent - and you can share in my triumph or revel in my failure. Either way, nothing I say or do should be taken as financial advice. But that, I fear, will be painfully obvious. jgornall@thenational.ae