What A Midsummer Night’s Dream teaches you about investing

Matthew Partridge teases the lessons for investors out of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


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Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written around 1595-1596, is set on the eve of the wedding between Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. Hermia defies her father's order to marry Demetrius and runs away with Lysander into the nearby forests. Demetrius goes to search for the couple, aided by Helena (who is secretly in love with him). Meanwhile, a group of amateur actors (the "rude mechanicals") are rehearsing a play to be performed at the royal wedding. However, unknown to both groups, Oberon, the king of the fairies, and his estranged queen, Titania, are quarrelling over the guardianship of a changeling child.

The key moment

At the end of the play, when all the other plots have been resolved, we finally get to see the mechanicals perform the play they have been rehearsing. The play, a retelling of Ovid's story of the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, is comically bad, complete with over-the-top acting and bad special effects. The Duke, while noting that the play was "very notably discharged", politely declines the offer "to see the epilogue" in favour of "a Begomask dance".

Lessons for investors

Just as the performance of the amateur "rude mechanicals" is a little rough, so amateur investors tempted to manage their own portfolio directly to avoid the fees associated with brokerages or online trading platforms can end up reducing their returns through elementary mistakes such as overtrading. Brad Barber and Terrance Odean of the University of California, Davis, have found the average client of a brokerage firm between 1991 and 1997 beat the market by a small amount in gross terms, but their trading costs were so high that they ended up lagging the index by 1.2% a year, with the most frequent traders doing worst.

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Because most brokerages charge a minimum fee, the smaller the amount of capital you have, the bigger the impact of trading costs. Those with portfolios of less than £15,000 might be better off with a handful of funds and trusts (either passive "trackers" or actively managed funds). You can think about buying individual shares once you have accumulated more money.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri