I have a confession to make: I made a really bad financial decision in 2003, my first year of earning a (lump sum, non-permanent) income. I guess what surprised me this week when I made this discovery was not the fact that I made a bad decision – that I already knew – but, after seeing the share price of Naspers hit new records, I realised, for the first time, the extent of my financial folly.
I earned roughly R20 000 (roughly $3000 at the time) through a holiday job that year, a job that paid really well. My decision was about what to do with this extra cash; I remember thinking about my options, but then more urgent things (student life!) got in the way, and the money eventually ended up in some money market account, the easiest and quickest solution for a disorganised student. I actually remember considering buying Naspers (a South African media company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange), as I had always had an affinity for the media, was part of the editorial staff of the student newspaper (which meant we were invited to a fish-and-chips-in-newspaper dinner with CEO Koos Bekker every year) and, in truth, I knew little about the other companies on the JSE. In my counterfactual world, instead of a money market account, I would have purchased R20 000 worth of Naspers equity.
So here’s what has happened to the Naspers share price since: an increase of 3100%. That’s R620 000 (roughly $70 000) if I had cashed out on Friday, meaning I could have owned my own Stellenbosch student flat today, or an FJ Cruiser paid for in cash, or enjoyed a year-long holiday touring the world. Instead, that money market account was closed somewhere over the years, the money probably used for some black hole debt. Of course I realise that hindsight is always perfect; that Naspers may have gone the route of most media companies, with declining market shares and dwindling profits. But it didn’t, and in my counterfactual world I’ve done a bad deal.
What are the lessons I’ve learned? 1. Don’t think that a small amount is not worth investing. (Of course, I probably could’ve invested more, if I had bet all my savings at that stage on Naspers, but that would’ve been too many eggs in one basket and is therefore not a realistic counterfactual.) 2. Prioritize financial decisions and don’t be lazy. Savings in a money market account is not a good financial decision, except perhaps if you’re close to retirement, but it was the easy thing to do. No one ever made money by doing the easy thing. 3. Invest in brilliant people and the projects they pursue. Anyone who met Koos Bekker in 2003 could’ve seen there’s something exceptional about him; his vision to acquire sizeable shares of Tencent and Mail-ru (Naspers’ Chinese and Russian holdings, now contributing a sizeable share of its profits) was eccentric and ingenious. And 4. Have some luck. When I could have made my oh-so-important investment in Naspers, Facebook didn’t yet exist, and social media was an expression used for celebrity TV-shows. Not me, not Bekker and not anyone else could have predicted the rapid growth of social media, or of China, or of social media in China.
Which of course raises the all-important question of what to do with today’s savings? Is Naspers still a good bet? Given their earnings per share ration, perhaps not. The record prices of the JSE in recent weeks also suggest that we’re closer to the peak than the trough. But who knows? I’m certainly not the one to give sound financial advice.