Win Beer and Retire Richer

If you’re like me, you enjoy drinking a beer or two at someone else’s expense. And if you’re like everyone on the planet, you’d rather retire with more money than less. So here are three questions to stump your less-financially-astute buddies, and help you retire richer by understanding what sound financial lessons this crazy stock market has obscured.

Which stock has performed better over the past six months; GM or Tesla Motors?

Tesla’s charismatic CEO, Elon Musk, seems to be everywhere talking up his car company, but its share price has lost 18% since August. Compare that to General Motors, with a stock up nearly 4% during the same period. If I asked this question two weeks ago the difference would have been even more stark, as Tesla’s share price has gained $30 a share to $180 since then.

So how can it be that stodgy GM, with a name that brings corporate bankruptcy to mind, is beating the airbags off the hipster car company? For starters, GM actually earns a profit, and a pretty good one with earnings of about $6 per share. Meanwhile, Telsa has lost nearly $7 per share, which isn’t too far below its book value of $8.31 per share.

And since Tesla makes no money, it pays no dividends. But GM is a veritable cash cow, paying out a 5% dividend. Since last summer’s stock market correction, investors have become increasingly leery of momentum stocks such as Tesla that make promises they have yet to delivered on.

2) On an inflation-adjusted basis, is the price of oil today higher or lower than it was thirty years ago?

The price of oil today ($30 a barrel) is more than twice what it was thirty years ago ($14.44). Admittedly, it’s not a completely fair question since oil was unusually cheap in 1986, less than one-third of its average inflation-adjusted price of $48 since then.  But a beer’s a beer.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the inflation-adjusted price of oil reached $100, during one of the worst stock market crashes ever. But now cheap oil might destabilize the global financial system by contributing to the possibility of deflation in Europe and Asia. While that fear is valid, its inverse is not also true: higher oil prices cannot boost the stock market since they are a net negative to the world’s GDP.

The last time oil was this cheap on an inflation-adjusted basis was in 2002, just before the S&P 500 doubled in value over the next five years. That doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing will happen again, but on the other hand, no empirical evidence suggests low oil prices will crash the economy. If anything, history suggests just the opposite is the case.

True or False: Warren Buffett is one of the ten richest people in the world?

After having gotten stung by the first two questions, your buddies will think long and hard before answering this one, which is exactly what you want them to do. Like the classic poisoned-wine challenge in The Princess Bride, they will think you want them to say ‘true’ since the answer must really be ‘false.’ Upon further reflection, they’ll think it’s inconceivable  that the Oracle of Omaha hasn’t been passed by a pack of hotshot tech mavens and hedge fund managers.

They may have even heard that his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, has performed poorly recently. True, BRK-A has lost 11% of its value during the past year. But Warren Buffett still is one of the richest people in the world, with a net worth recently estimated at $72 billion that puts him in third place behind Microsoft founder Bill Gates ($79 billion) and Mexican industrialist Carlos Slim ($77 billion).

So what will your friends have learned by the time they watch you smugly sip your third free beer? Companies that make money usually turn out to be better investments than ones that don’t; cheap oil is preferable to expensive oil; and making money the old fashioned way – slow and steady — is still the surest way to accumulate wealth.