Reading this article is like having lunch with Charles Ellis. He succinctly describes how to succeed as an investor.
This is the best writing that I have encountered about investing.
Paul Samuelson worries that too many people have mistaken beliefs about the stock market.
A few insights to help you make intelligent investment decisions.
Wall Street's Wisest Man
Charles Ellis, 63, has four decades of investment experience. In the 1960s, he helped manage the Rockefeller family's fortune. Later, he founded Wall Street's top consulting firm, Greenwich Associates, which provides financial advice to everyone from Goldman Sachs to Fidelity and T. Rowe Price. He currently oversees the $10 billion endowment fund at Yale University. Ellis has also written trailblazing articles and books, including "The Loser's Game" (a 1975 article that spurred Vanguard's founder, Jack Bogle, to introduce the first index fund for individual investors).
Zweig said that the two met up at the Yale Club in Manhattan, where "Fueled by several cups of black coffee and his own boundless mental energy, Ellis held forth for what seemed like a brisk hour and a half. Only after I stepped back into the rain did I realize that we'd talked for nearly five hours. Here's some of what we touched on."
Q. You've often said that long-term investors should root for stocks to go down, not up. Why?
A. If you're buying something, wouldn't you rather pay less for it than more? When stocks get cheaper, how can that not be good news for a long-term investor? There are very few times when you should be bold, and history shows that those times are precisely when it seems you should be most afraid. It's absolutely cockamamie crazy to sell stocks after they drop. Instead, you should say, "Today there's a first-rate bargain and I'm buying."
Q. That's easier said than done.
A. Ben Graham and Warren Buffett have talked about a charming, seductive manic-depressive gentleman named Mr. Market. Every day he shows up on your doorstep offering to do business with you. When he's manic, he'll offer to buy your stocks or sell you his for absurdly inflated prices. When he's depressed, his prices go ridiculously low. The mistake most people make is answering the door just because Mr. Market knocks. You don't have to let him in. Why should you buy just because he's excited? Why should you sell just because he's down in the dumps? A long-term investor shouldn't care about market prices.
Q. So what should investors care about?
A. Back in 1963, I was in a training program at Wertheim & Co., and one day the firm's senior partner, J.K. Klingenstein, was our guest speaker. As he was about to leave, one of the trainees blurted out, "Mr. Klingenstein, you're rich. How can we become rich like you?" Everyone else was mortified, and J.K. was clearly not amused. But then his face softened, and you could see that he was taking the question very seriously and trying to sum up everything he'd learned in a lifetime on Wall Street. The room was silent as a tomb, and finally Mr. Klingenstein said firmly, "Don't lose." Then he stood up and left. I've never forgotten that moment. That's what investors should really care about: Don't lose. Don't make mistakes. They cost too much. Most of the destruction of investment value occurs in small, private, anguishing experiences that are never discussed and never recorded, because people were doing things they never should have done.
Q. You don't mean we should stay out of the stock market because we might lose money?
A. That's not what losing means. In investing, losing means taking decisive action at the worst possible times being driven by your emotions precisely when you need to be the most rational.
Trying too hard to win eventually means losing. To win the Indianapolis 500, you first have to finish the Indianapolis 500 that's five hundred laps around and around that oval. If you try too hard on just one lap, you won't live to finish. And just think about the Forbes 400 [the magazine's list of America's richest people]. The turnover on that list is incredible. So many fortunes have been snuffed out by the temptation to try harder.
In a rapidly rising market, the faster you trade, the better you'll do and that makes you forget that those whom the gods would destroy, they first make confident. The more you know, the higher the odds that you'll make a serious mistake. That's why it's not the beginners who tend to die at skydiving and why most car accidents happen within a few miles of home. There's a saying in the British Royal Air Force that investors need to remember: "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."
Q. So why do so many of us insist on trying so hard, not least to beat the market?
A. Because we're human beings. Even in our advanced society, there's a curious belief in magic. It's a virulent form of the triumph of hope over experience.
Q. As a consultant, you've urged managers of endowments and pension funds to create and then live by a formal "investment policy." What's that and should all of us have one?
A. It's a written statement of what you believe as an investor and what you can hold on to even when everyone you know is either excited or scared to death of the market. Go to a continuous-process factory sometime a chemical plant, a cookie manufacturer, a place that makes toothpaste. Everything is perfectly repetitive, automated, exactly in place. If you find anything interesting, you've found something wrong.
Investing is a continous process too; it isn't supposed to be interesting. It's a responsibility. If you go to the stock market because you want excitement, then sooner or later you will lose. Everyone who thinks the stock market is a game loses everyone, to the last man, woman, and child. So, the purpose of an investment policy is simply to ensure that your continuous process never breaks down.
Visualize yourself looking back when you're 80 years old, reviewing whether you invested your money wisely. Ask, "What is it I can trust myself to do in good times and in bad?" Then write it down on one side of a single sheet of paper when you'll put money in, how you'll manage it, when and why you'll take it out. The best plan, for most of us, is to commit to buying some index funds and do nothing else. Benign neglect is the secret to long-term investing success. If you change your investment policy, you are likely to be wrong; if you change it with a sense of urgency, you're guaranteed to be wrong.
Q. Why index funds?
A. Watch a pro football game, and it's obvious the guys on the field are far faster, stronger and more willing to bear and inflict pain than you are. Surely you would say, "I don't want to play against those guys!" Well, 90 percent of stock market volume is done by institutions, and half of that is done by the world's 50 largest investment firms, deeply committed, vastly well prepared smartest sons of bitches in the world working their tails off all day long. You know what? I don't want to play against those guys either.
But I don't have to play against them. Instead, I can hire them -- by buying an index fund. Then they all work for me for free, because stock prices express the best judgment of all the investors out there. Most of the time, those prices are approximately right, so most of the time you'll be wrong if you second-guess them. Factor in fees and trading costs not to mention taxes and you have to do about 20 percent better than average before your costs just to match the index after your costs. Stock picking is a loser's game, but Wall Street loves creating the perception that you can win at it.
Q. You've said that there are three ways to succeed as an investor. What are they?
A. You can succeed intellectually, physically, or emotionally. The intellectual way is how we would all like to succeed: being so smart that we understand things more clearly and see farther ahead than every other investor. The pre-eminent example, obviously, is Warren Buffett. But people like him are very, very, very rare.
The physical way to succeed is simply to work harder, to start at dawn and grind away till midnight and carry home a heavy briefcase full of research and keep working right on through the weekend too. This way is the most popular on Wall Street, where nearly everyone seems to try it. And for some of them, this way works well, I can't say I've met many people for whom it actually works, but they must think it does, or they wouldn't keep trying so hard.
The third way to succeed as an investor is difficult emotionally. When that seductive fellow Mr. Market comes around, you have to pay absolutely no attention to him, no matter what happens. You have to control your emotions, and most of the time that means the best thing to do is nothing. If you can't control your emotions, being in the market is like walking into a heated area wearing a backpack full of explosives.
I'm not smart enough to succeed the intellectual way, and I can't work hard enough to succeed the physical way. But the emotionally difficult way takes very little time and makes no intellectual or physical demands on you at all. Statistically, judging by how the public invests, most people don't like the emotionally difficult path. Then again, more and more people are trying it; the amount of money in index funds has been rising year after year. The emotional path is the only reliable way that I know of to succeed.
Q. When will this bear market end?
A. As Rhett said to Scarlett, "Frankly, I don't give a damn." You'd have to be self-deluding, maybe certifiably nuts, to try answering that. And the answer doesn't matter anyway. If you ran a commercial tree farm, would you ask for up-to-the-minute bulletins on how the forest was growing today? How many people are investing for success this year, this month, this week, this day? Most people's true time horizons are much longer than they think 50 years, even more. They should be investing for success over a lifetime or more than one lifetime, because part of what they're investing will go to their kids after they're gone.
Mr. Buffett on the Stock Market
By Carol Loomis, Fortune magazine
The following article appeared in Fortune magazine dated November 22, 1999. It was written by Carol Loomis, one of Mr. Buffett's good friends, as the distillation of a number of talks that he gave during the summer and fall of 1999.
article provides an extremely insightful and comprehensive look at the stock
market, and it appears on this site with Mr. Buffett's permission.
In the excerpt that follows, Mr. Buffett refers to the enormous costs that investors bear as "frictional costs." These costs include the commissions and high fees that investors pay each time they buy and sell.
As an investor you can avoid these horrendous costs if you make sensible investment decisions and avoid excessive trading.
"Bear in mindthis is a critical fact often ignored that investors as a whole cannot get anything out of their businesses except what the businesses earn. Sure, you and I can sell each other stocks at higher and higher prices. Let's say the FORTUNE 500 was just one business and that the people in this room each owned a piece of it. In that case, we could sit here and sell each other pieces at ever-ascending prices. You personally might outsmart the next fellow by buying low and selling high. But no money would leave the game when that happened: You'd simply take out what he put in. Meanwhile, the experience of the group wouldn't have been affected a whit, because its fate would still be tied to profits. The absolute most that the owners of a business, in aggregate, can get out of it in the end between now and Judgment Day is what that business earns over time.
"And there's still another major qualification to be considered. If you and I were trading pieces of our business in this room, we could escape transactional costs because there would be no brokers around to take a bite out of every trade we made. But in the real world investors have a habit of wanting to change chairs, or of at least getting advice as to whether they should, and that costs money big money. The expenses they bear I call them frictional costs are for a wide range of items. There's the market maker's spread, and commissions, and sales loads, and 12b-1 fees, and management fees, and custodial fees, and wrap fees, and even subscriptions to financial publications. And don't brush these expenses off as irrelevancies. If you were evaluating a piece of investment real estate, would you not deduct management costs in figuring your return? Yes, of course and in exactly the same way, stock market investors who are figuring their returns must face up to the frictional costs they bear.
"And what do they come to? My estimate is that investors in American stocks pay out well over $100 billion a year say, $130 billion to move around on those chairs or to buy advice as to whether they should! Perhaps $100 billion of that relates to the FORTUNE 500. In other words, investors are dissipating almost a third of everything that the FORTUNE 500 is earning for them that $334 billion in 1998 by handing it over to various types of chair-changing and chair-advisory "helpers." And when that handoff is completed, the investors who own the 500 are reaping less than a $250 billion return on their $10 trillion investment. In my view, that's slim pickings.
"Perhaps by now you're mentally quarreling with my estimate that $100 billion flows to those "helpers." How do they charge thee? Let me count the ways. Start with transaction costs, including commissions, the market maker's take, and the spread on underwritten offerings: With double counting stripped out, there will this year be at least 350 billion shares of stock traded in the U.S., and I would estimate that the transaction cost per share for each side that is, for both the buyer and the seller--will average 6 cents. That adds up to $42 billion.
"Move on to the additional costs: hefty charges for little guys who have wrap accounts; management fees for big guys; and, looming very large, a raft of expenses for the holders of domestic equity mutual funds. These funds now have assets of about $3.5 trillion, and you have to conclude that the annual cost of these to their investors counting management fees, sales loads, 12b-1 fees, general operating costs runs to at least 1%, or $35 billion.
"And none of the damage I've so far described counts the commissions and spreads on options and futures, or the costs borne by holders of variable annuities, or the myriad other charges that the "helpers" manage to think up. In short, $100 billion of frictional costs for the owners of the FORTUNE 500 which is 1% of the 500's market value looks to me not only highly defensible as an estimate, but quite possibly on the low side.
"It also looks like a horrendous cost. I heard once about a cartoon in which a news commentator says, 'There was no trading on the New York Stock Exchange today. Everyone was happy with what they owned.' Well, if that were really the case, investors would every year keep around $130 billion in their pockets."
Nobel Laureate Warns Investors
Paul Samuelson worries that too many people have mistaken beliefs about the stock market.
The following excerpt is from an interview conducted by Steve Baily and Steven Syre. It appeared in the 11/19/98 Boston Globe.
Paul Samuelson, the economist and Nobel laureate, expressed his concern about the US stock market as it climbed to new heights and money continuted to flow into mutual funds at a record pace.
At 82 years old, the professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology worried that the average investor had the mistaken belief that a commitment to hold stocks over a long period nearly eliminated risk.
Q: What do you think of the direction of the stock market today?
A: I think the gasoline that has been running the bullish stock market of the last few years has consisted of more and more people getting on the bandwagon (in the belief) that you always do better in the long run in stocks. They think you should just be a patient buy-and-hold person and that if everybody does that, it's the key to great success and it's kind of a sure thing.
Q: What's wrong with that?
A: As more and more people believe that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy without regard to its intrinsic statistical merits. I'm not saying people shouldn't be equity investors or that they shouldn't have as substantial a fraction of their portfolios in equities as their own true risk tolerance permits. But the reasoning is wrong that it is a sure thing or becomes a sure thing if you're a 30-year investor or a 40-year investor. When everybody believes in it, and while people are getting on the bandwagon, it seems very believable. The results are immediate.
Q: Haven't people believed that for a long time?
A: This big shift toward equities is ... new, a revival. While it's happening it tends to be fulfilling, but it leaves you with no anchor at all. If stocks were a good buy at 18-to-1 (ratio of price to per-share earnings) and they're not bad at 20 or 22, they're not going to be as good a buy at 30- or 40-to-1. But the dogma says you don't have to have any notion of fundamental value: It's a statistical fact, 150 years of evidence that you do better in stocks. It becomes a self-falsification once everyone believes in it. It's like a chain-letter phenomena of a Ponzi game. This is not with any malice on the part of any crooks, but it's mob behavior.
Q: Investors have several justifications for high stock price-earnings ratios, like rapid earnings growth or low interest rates.
A: People say: Yes, PEs are high, but the earnings growth justifies a high PE. Coca-Cola probably has a 40 price-to-earnings ratio. Most of the stocks you would associate with Warren Buffett Coke, Gillette, and so forth are not...bargain stocks. They're very richly valued. But Warren Buffett, who is sort of a genius at picking things, believes in franchises. Gillette has a franchise. I'm skeptical, not about Buffett but about somebody trying to imitate him by being a franchise investor. What happened to International Harvester's franchise? What is happening now to McDonald's?
Q: But earlier you were critical of the perceived safety of a buy-and-hold strategy. What should an investor do?
A: In the end, I would come out for buy and hold, but at the level of your risk aversion and tolerance and realizing there is no sure thing. It involves buying a little bit of everything on a no-load, very low-expense basis, which any American family can do. It would be doing as well as the wealthiest group in the country.
Q: What should they keep in mind most of all?
A: I don't come out with any dramatic message. I don't say America is at a big bubble now and there's a disaster around the corner, that you should get a cabin in the woods. I say learn your risk tolerance, understand time leaves you with risk. Pick a broadly diversified, low-expense medium and stick with it. If you become apprehensive the bubble is close, shade your equity position a little. If you're wrong, you won't do much harm.
Q: But the market you described sounds like it could lead to a big correction.
A: I think there is a little trouble sometime ahead. I'd rather the stock market I'm speaking as an economist, not as an investor and certainly not as an elder investor took a rest for five years and hardly grew at all. It did take such a rest for 18 years after 1968. The market went nowhere. In this case, I would not consider it a calamity for the U.S. economy.
On Common Yardsticks and Poker Chips
A few insights to help you make intelligent investment decisions.
Jeffrey Luke |
10 June 2001
I recently read an article in Fast Company magazine about making decisions under pressure, scoping out the competition, and sizing up rewards and risks. The article was not about investing; it was about playing poker.
"At the world series of poker in Las Vegas, the game was No-Limit Texas Hold'em. At the European Poker Championship in London, the game was Seven Card Stud. In both games, the results were the same: Dan Harrington, a 50-year-old former bankruptcy lawyer, won the 1995 championships and the right to claim the title of undisputed heavyweight poker champion of the world along with a cool $1.25 million for the two tournaments."
The article went on to explain that for Harrington a big, ruddy Irishman with a no-nonsense Boston accent, the two titles represented the culmination of a lifetime of playing and winning at games that require confident character, sharp intellect, deft strategy, and relentless execution.
The qualities that led to Harrington's success in poker are similar to the attributes of a successful investor.
"It's all character, it's not a matter of being brilliant," Harrington said. "It's just a matter of character. That's all it is. You have the discipline to draw back when you see that your strategy is incorrect. That's the kernel of the idea in gambling: it's the discipline to keep your losses down and not to let your losses affect you. It's the same in business. It's a percentage game. You don't win 100% of the time. You do something adequate, you stay in the game, and you keep playing. You win a little bit more than you lose, and when you lose, you lose less. You're going to win eventually.
"You may not win the whole world, you may not even be an extremely high producer. But you're going to be a winner. It sounds simple. It is just so hard to execute.
"Execute extremely well and you'll win. That's why Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach, used to spend eight hours on one sweep, just one play. Do the simple blocking and tackling and the other stuff will take care of itself. It's the same in gambling and in business. You get the basics and you'll win. You don't have to be some super-visionary."
Harrington's words reminded me of something that Charles Ellis, a well-regarded Wall Street Investor, had said:
"Back in 1963, I was in a training program at Wertheim & Co., and one day the firm's senior partner, J.K. Klingenstein, was our guest speaker. As he was about to leave, one of the trainees blurted out, "Mr. Klingenstein, you're rich. How can we become rich like you?" Everyone else was mortified, and J.K. was clearly not amused. But then his face softened, and you could see that he was taking the question very seriously and trying to sum up everything he'd learned in a lifetime on Wall Street. The room was silent as a tomb, and finally Mr. Klingenstein said firmly, "Don't lose." Then he stood up and left. I've never forgotten that moment. That's what investors should really care about: Don't lose. Don't make mistakes. They cost too much. Most of the destruction of investment value occurs in small, private, anguishing experiences that are never discussed and never recorded, because people were doing things they never should have done.
"In investing, losing means taking decisive action at the worst possible times -- being driven by your emotions precisely when you need to be the most rational," Ellis said.
"Trying too hard to win eventually means losing. To win the Indianapolis 500, you first have to finish the Indianapolis 500 that's five hundred laps around and around that oval. If you try too hard on just one lap, you won't live to finish. And just think about the Forbes 400 [the magazine's list of America's richest people]. The turnover on that list is incredible. So many fortunes have been snuffed out by the temptation to try harder.
"In a rapidly rising market, the faster you trade, the better you'll do -- and that makes you forget that those whom the gods would destroy, they first make confident. The more you know, the higher the odds that you'll make a serious mistake. That's why it's not the beginners who tend to die at skydiving and why most car accidents happen within a few miles of home. There's a saying in the British Royal Air Force that investors need to remember: 'There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.' "
Harrington, the world-champion poker player, describes a tactic that gamblers employ to avoid losing large amounts of money at a time.
"In gambling there's a formula called the Kelly Criteria," Harrington explains. "You figure out what your edge is say it's 1% then you can bet 1% of your bankroll on the next bet. If you do that, you have a very low chance of ever going broke.
"A lot of players are better than I am, or at least as good. But they always seem to have no money. Why? They overbet their bankroll. Greed takes over. They've won some money, assume that it was totally due to their superior play, and that it will continue. Of course, that's not the case.
"If you see studies of blackjack or any gambling where there's volatility involved, like the stock market, it doesn't go up in a straight line. It fluctuates. If you have an insufficient bankroll for the stakes that you're playing, then all it takes is one of the fluctuations and you're out of the game."
Both Harrington and Ellis seem to agree that both gamblers and investors lose large amounts of money at a time because their decisions are driven by emotion.
On the topic of handling his emotions in a high-stakes poker game, Harrington said, "I don't get caught up in the throes of fear or greed. There's a saying in poker, 'You get mad at your money.' That's literally the truth. You just lost a 10 to 1 proposition and you're saying, 'You think that was a bad bet? I'll show you how bad I can beat myself this next game.' Then you do something crazy.
I have more control than 99.9% of the people and I feel those emotions. Can you
imagine what someone else does? You just give in to them. It's hard not to give
in. It sounds simple: character makes the whole difference."
12 June 2001
by Jeffrey Luke
Some of what is necessary for sucess as in investor in stocks or mutual funds has nothing to do with intelligence or knowledge of economics or advanced degrees in business. There is a type of temperment that can be adventageous to an investor, and it is comprised of a way of thinking and behaving that is not built into everyone. Here are a few thoughs on some of the qualities that often occur in those people who succeed as investors.
1.) Take a Contrarian Approach to Investing.
It's easy to get swept up in the exuberance of a bull market. Newspaper articles and television programs show rising stock prices, and many people feel as though it is crucial to buy stocks immediately, lest they miss the boat to riches.
Fashion is fine for clothing, cars or hairstyles, but it is a guarantee for loss in investing. The investor has the unpleasant choice of doing the fashionable and comfortable thing which will lose money or the uncomfortable and contrary thing which will make money.
Assets become overpriced precisely because they are popular
and comfortable to own. In the gigantic technology run-up prior to the recent
technology crash in March of 2000, many people bought the stocks of internet,
computer, telecommunications and software companies. Common stocks were immensely
popular in the years leading up to this crash because large numbers of investors
bought them on the soon-to-be-mistaken belief that they could go nowhere but up.
The seldom-stated premise of bandwagon psychology is that the profitable trend of the immediate past will persist into the indefinite future, or at least far enough into the future for the investors and their friends to retire rich.
The belief that the future will be completely wonderful or completely awful leads most investors to buy at high prices and to sell at low ones. The contrary investor should be on the other side of those transactions. Reality generally falls somewhere in between the worst and the best that investors imagine, so betting against either extreme is usually a good policy.
You can control when you invest. A contrarian investor should be able to base his decision upon careful thought and analysis of each transaction. If you start to feel the urge to buy stocks or fund shares because the market is climbing and everyone else is excited about stocks, you may simply want to ask yourself why you are buying along with the herd.
A successful investment strategy entails buying shares as the stock market declines or reaches a bottom, not when it ascends toward a high. So being contrarian means buying when others are selling and prices are low. Since no one knows when prices are low until after the fact, a plan involving periodic investments of a fixed dollar amount makes sense. Such a program ensures that an investor will purchase more shares when prices are low, and fewer when prices are high.
Contrary investing will not produce instant profits. Nothing will. Improving the odds in their favor is the best that investors may reasonably expect. If practiced over a long period of time, however, contrary investing will keep investors out of trouble and point them toward bargains. The long-term period is critical to success, which suggests another virtue of investing patience.
2.) Be Patient: Look for Slow, Consistent Growth
Most of what I know about patience I learn from observing nature. I see how long it took for the Grand Canyon to be carved by the creeping Colorado River. The magnificent Sequoias near San Franiciso took hundreds of years to achieve their stature.
Any worthwhile growth, whether in nature or investing, takes time. It is important to remember that flames that burn brightly burn out quickly. And so it goes for investing. IPOs were very hot and popular in the late 1990s, and it was not uncommon for people in their teens or 20s to become millionaires in the Internet industry. But few things are given away for free, and one must not forget that those whom the gods would destroy, they first make confident.
Charles Ellis points to the incongruity between investors' attention to the latest market news and their investing time horizon.
"If you ran a commercial tree farm, would you ask for up-to-the-minute bulletins on how the forest was growing today? How many people are investing for success this year, this month, this week, this day? Most people's true time horizons are much longer than they think 50 years, even more. They should be investing for success over a lifetime or more than one lifetime, because part of what they're investing will go to their kids after they're gone."
3.) Spend Less Than You Earn.
Almost anyone can ease their financial pressures by making an effort to keep the amount of money that they spend a notch below what they earn. Even Warren Buffett completes his own tax returns every year, and I'm certain that he could hire an entire accounting firm to accomplish the task if he wished.
No matter how much you earn, you can find ways to spend less money, save more, and harness the power of the stock market through mutual funds.
4.) Keep Things Simple.
I recently found a few phrases in the Tao Te Ching, the esoteric but infinitely practical book written most probably in the sixth century B.C. Although I doubt that its author, Lao Tsu, was an investor, his philosophy would likely have led to investment success.
See simplicity in the complicated.
Achieve greatness in little things.
In the universe the difficult things are done as if they are easy.
In the universe great acts are made of small deeds.
The sage does not attempt anything very big,
And thus achieves greatness.
In matters of investing:
1.) Keep it simple.
2.) Costs matter.
3.) Make a plan, then stay the course.
4.) When faced with multiple solutions to a problem, choose the simplest one.
5.) You can achieve your financial goals with just one mutual fund if you desire.
There's an old joke on Wall Street: "What's the best way to make a small fortune? Begin with a large fortune and trade it a lot."
Although the process of investing may at first seem complex, in reality it is not. Beginning investors do not need to hire a broker, they can often do better than professional investors by buying and holding mutual fund shares.
Investing works best when the plan is clear and its execution is simple.
Thank you for reading through this collection of investment articles.
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