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Say I found a time machine and decided to go back 20 years in time replacing my past self while retaining my current memory then sell my house (which is my largest asset at that time) and invest in 1 particular company using my entire savings, for example one of the current large tech companies like Google or Facebook.

Would the fact that I did this have a big enough perturbational effect on the new timeline to cause said company to not end up being as successful as it currently is? This is with the understanding that the company was profitable in this timeline where I did not invest in it, and that complex systems can be unpredictable in their evolution i.e. the butterfly effect.

Alternatively what is the safest way to make a profitable investment in an uncertain commodity having foreknowledge of its success in other timelines?

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Siphonophorae, welcome to Worldbuilding! The answer to your question strongly depends on how time and time travel work in your scenario. The future can be deterministic, or fully random, or "butterfly effect" can be in play - all would lead to different outcomes. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ As we understand physics today, time travel is not possible. That means we cannot know how a fictional time travel mechanism deals with the butterfly effect. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ @o.m. - If you restrict yourself to how we understand physics today you'll never change how we understand it tomorrow. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 9:25
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    $\begingroup$ I'm curious about the logistics of a situation where someone who needs to sell their house to invest the money... is the only person capable of time travel. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ The answer to this question depends heavily on how time-travel is supposed to work in the story, and therefore on the story you want to tell. How may time streams are there? When you go back in time, do you go back to the past, or to a past? When you go back in time, do you then swim in the same stream which had brought you to the present, or will the stream bifurcate instantly? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 11:50

17 Answers 17

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The larger the impact, and the longer the time since your change, the greater the divergence from your original timeline.

A tricky point about the high level financial market is that we are not talking about a closed calculated system run by a machine that slowly ticks away as time moves on that could be relied upon to arrive at a 'similar answer' if you changed a few data points in the past.

Instead we have a complex social system that is connected to live humans and driven by whims, desires, and personal self interest. And on top of that there is the issue that long term growth in business is influenced by wide ranging outside factors that can include the fortunes or failures of other businesses and people over time.

So if you hop back to 1999 and suddenly drop the value of a nice house into "The company that offered the most bang per buck" in the stock market, then you are going to set off ripples through the whole international business system that potentially have drastic effects that would be incredibly difficult to judge.

What if your sudden influx of cash into the market sours other's investors views on things?

  • What if they dog pile on the same company, assuming whoever suddenly bought up a pile of shares 'knows something', and you rob a different company of their investments... This in turn could translate into your golden egg company not being able to buy them [and a profitable tech your company relied on] out in a few years. Or the change in another company's growth could mean your competitor doesn't see as much negative pressure and manages to get something to market sooner.

  • What if other investors see the influx of cash, and sudden rise in stock price, and deem the investment risk in your company to be a bit more dicey than putting their money in a competitor at a point in history where the fates of the businesses in question were more up in the air? Your investment holds the potential to rob the company of more capital overall, risking it lagging behind at a critical point in time that simple knowledge of an original timeline would not be able to see.

But the risks spread wider and wider as time goes on.

Hopping back and forth in time to make small investments on sudden market changes where you can cash out and profit quickly means you can keep your overall risk small: The market won't have time to do anything unexpected if you're making reasonable sized trades over a few days or weeks, but 'sure things' become far less sure the further away from the point in time you've made a change, and the larger your initial change then the greater the probability of a large shift is to occur.

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No

Barring the existence of some Illuminati-type organization who watches for people like you, anyway. Most of these tech companies succeeded because they had the good fortune to introduce a service or good into the market at the right time and had the right strategies to defeat all their competitors. It would be difficult to see how an influx of money would cause these companies to fail.

Possible to fail? Sure. Maybe throwing more money at startup means these companies can afford to hire people they otherwise couldn't and didn't hire the crazed genius at half-price who's secretly responsible for the success. Maybe giving them more money will inflate them into a large company early and somehow let competitors paint themselves as the underdog and take them out.

But something to remember is that investing into a tech startup isn't exactly like building a tower, it's more akin to filling a bit, as you are giving them money that they're requesting. For instance, you're investing into something by buying shares, generally. (It seems like the smart way to go about doing it.) And these shares come in a limited number, which would have been bought anyway.

If the story requires it, can doing something like this butterfly effect Google into oblivion so we're all using Yahoo Search? Yes. Is it likely? No. What would I set the probably at? Probably less than one percent.

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    $\begingroup$ This essentially. Google sold $1.67 billion in stock during their IPO in 2004. Adding or subtracting a normal house's worth of of value is essentially unnoticeable in that situation. If story reasons require it you could make it happen, but realistically you going back to invest has essentially zero impact. Early rounds of venture capital funding might be different, but by the time a stock goes public you are pretty safe. $\endgroup$
    – Crouse
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly, the Google guys originally tried to sell their engine as-is to Yahoo. It wouldn't be too hard to have a scenario where your time traveller goes a bit earlier than he expected, somehow manages to build up interest in search engines, and when Larry Page comes to Yahoo to sell BackRub, they actually buy it. And now the time traveller is faced not only with a very different future to return to, but also a big question - invest in Yahoo, or not? Will they manage to capitalize on the new search engine? $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Also noting that "throw my life savings at" when a company's stock is worth $0.01 might mean buying all available stock, which would then prevent the price from rising (because you own all available stock, no one can buy or sell stock, so the price effectively sits at $0.01). It would be necessary to ensure whatever shares of stock you buy are proportionally small to the overall quantity issued $\endgroup$
    – cegfault
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ @cegfault that's... not how it works. At the same time, any sort of stock move where you're buying a large chunk of the stock is a lot more likely to butterfly things than if you were buying a comparatively small quantity... especially as it means that you'll have a decent chunk of control over the company yourself (instead of others who would have had that control). $\endgroup$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ @cegfault The stock price being at \$0.01 means that there is at least one person who will sell the stock for \$0.01 (or at least they did very recently), not that you can buy all shares for \$0.01 apiece. As you buy more and more of the shares, you'll buy out all the low offers, sending the price steadily upward. Whatever you pay for the final share will be the stock price until you sell one of your shares, but that will certainly be higher than what you paid for your first share. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 17:47
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Maybe

The new owner of your house may have been destined to become a gifted programmer in the company you buy into, if she had only moved out to Southern California instead of buying that house.

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  • $\begingroup$ I believe this answer is based on a poor wording of the question - at least, I am assuming that it more likely that the house would be sold before travelling back in time (it will sell for more dollars, which can be denominated in bills printed at least 20 years ago to avoid deflation). $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ Actually my answer was based on my unsupported assumption that the time traveler couldn't bring anything with them and would therefore be relying on assets which their younger self owned 20 years earlier. If transport of one house's worth in paper money is possible, then a much more valuable use of that paper would be monthly excerpts from the New York Times stock section, and a smaller amount of date-appropriate cash. With that, an investor could raise almost any amount of money, slowly over decades, spreading purchases out so as to avoid detection and/or temporal changes. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael - "it will sell for more dollars, which can be denominated in bills printed at least 20 years ago to avoid deflation" - why not buy a lot of gold and take that instead? $\endgroup$
    – almaruf
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ @almaruf deflation. going back in time you have the reverse effect of inflation on currency, as well as inflation hedges like gold. The spot price of gold in 1999 was under $300/oz, or about 1/5 of its current spot price. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael - I interpreted the OPs question exactly the opposite. Namely, that nothing physical could be transported back, only his current consciousness could be sent back into his 20 year younger body. $\endgroup$
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 22:29
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Ask yourself.

No, seriously, ask yourself. You've got a time travel machine. Why are you asking the internet whether your scheme will work? Go forward in time and ask yourself whether it worked.

(To be honest, if you've got access to a time machine and your scope of usage is simply "make some money with the stock market", you've got a critical failure of imagination.)

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  • $\begingroup$ To be fair, most plots involving time travel show a critical failure of imagination of what could be done with time travel, although many handwave this away by introducing limitations on how time travel can work. Also, using unlimited time travel to its full potentially really would make a boring story as you'd essentially have the ability to become the supreme being in the universe. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Some stories handwave it with some kind of "fate" rather than restrictions, eg. a person's death may be predetermined and even if you prevent the cause of the death you originally observed, another cause will arise and kill the person anyway. If there is no such thing as fate, I think most stories vastly underestimate the butterfly effect. Even if you just quickly hop into the past, step outside your time machine to catch breath for 5 mins and go back to your time, the displacement of air will have an ever so slightly effect that might be measurable in the now changed future. $\endgroup$
    – Sinthorion
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ +50 funny! Love this response $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 11:25
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100% (from this method). Because you won't be able to sell your house.

You're saying you're going to sell your house after time traveling. Thing is, that's not your house, that's the PAST YOU's house, and you won't be able to sell it. Unless your form of time travel encompasses rewinding the entire world time 20 years with you being the only person who remembers the future. However, in that case there are better ways to make loads of money, like remembering or bringing along 20 years worth of winning lottery numbers.

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    $\begingroup$ Or one winning lottery ticket, which you can then invest in soon-to-be successful companies if you want even more money. Winning 20 lotteries in a row isn't advisable if you want your time travel to remain a secret. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Ray. That's why you don't get greedy and stop after winning 19. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Kevin no definitely not ! That case would be invastigated to know if he/she would have cheated for example… I can say with my experience (being invastigated even if your income is earned in the right way) that even if they find nothing this is really an unpleasant experience (I was short of getting bank banned through being registered on the nationwide debtor blacklist but for the opposite reason). Unless you have a 6 figure bill to be paid next week for which you have npthing to sell for covering the expense ɴᴇᴠᴇʀ ᴅᴏ ʟɪᴋᴇ ᴍᴇ. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ I think the question is poorly worded... the house should be sold before travelling back in time, making sure to trade out any bills that are less than 20 years old. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael I think that will have one of 3 responses: 1. one of the notes is manipulated in a very expert way to have a serial number changed; 2. There has been a printing error; 3. someone managed to subvert the printers that print these notes and print official notes counter to the orders of the Federal Reserve. $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 20:02
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0%

Simply mine bitcoin in 2009. There are several blocks that, as of today, were mined by unknown people who have never moved the bitcoin. Each block that was mined (every 10 minutes) from 2009-2012 is worth about $500,000 today, and could be trivially mined by downloading a program onto a laptop.

Just one day's worth of mining was worth about $70,000,000 in that time period, but for quite a while, there were only a few laptops mining, and any modern graphics card would get a significant chunk of that.

Of course, this would change the hash of every downstream block, which is quite the butterfly effect as different miners get lucky mining, but not something that is going to affect the eventual rise or demise of Bitcoin itself.

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  • $\begingroup$ That would be funny though. You mine bitcoin. Butterfly effect causes some crazy change to bitcoin.... bitcoin now worthless, or replaced the dollar, etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ basically every block after the one you mined now is re-rolled to go to a different random miner mining at the time, with a different hash, but most mining has been done by large pools, and the pools would end up with a negligible difference over any time period longer than a day or so. Pretty unlikely to have any real effects. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 14:47
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Buying shares would rise the prices at the stock market, although only by a small margin if you invest the price of an average house info a billion-dollar company. This increase could, depending on your time travel model, butterfly into anything at all, but only rather hypothetically.

If you want to prevent your investment to influence the share prices at all, better invest in an index fund or ETF. Those track the index, but buying or selling them doesn't change the underlying base values.

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This is a case for not being greedy. The major tech companies have had big increases in stock price after they went public, and after there were a significant number of shareholders. Buying a hundred shares on the stock market a month after the company went public is unlikely have much effect on its behavior or stock price.

If I were using a time machine for retroactive stock investing, I would go back to November, 1929, and buy a few shares each for some of the US companies that survived, especially the ones that experienced big expansions during WWII.

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100%. The Cosmic censorship principle reveals itself as more than theoretical.

[Time travel is inherently paradoxical. How you resolve it in your fiction is up to you. But time travellers are not detected amongst us, and here is my somewhat gloomy speculation as to why.]

If you travel back in time and change something, it makes a (finite) part of the universe inconsistent with the (infinite) rest. Something (quantum coherence, maybe -- "spooky action at a distance") makes this impossible. But not directly. It's rather that the consequence of the inconsistency spreads outwards at the speed of light, until a corresponding imbalance travelling inwards from the boundary of the sphere of inconsistency can erase the time traveller and all his works and return the universe to self-consistency. The radius of the sphere is the speed of light multiplied by the size of the displacement in time.

We occasionally observe "anomalous", inexplicable, novae and supernovae, and other even more inexplicable events of astonishing violence. What they are, were civilisations where some intelligent being managed against all the odds to make a time machine that worked well enough to go back minutes at the first attempt, and thereby engulf not just his planet but his star. Now, they are just randomized atoms, and all information about the time machine has been censored.

The Fermi Paradox is resolved by the consequences of early experimentation with time travel. If you are lucky the first attempt is at a microsecond back, and the result does not utterly destroy all life on his planet, but only his city and tens of miles around it. If you are really lucky your experimenter tries only for a picosecond or two, as proof of principle. Thirty milliseconds, and the planet is gone, and from many light-years away it looks like an anomalous nova in a binary star system.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love this one. Could be all these dome over a city films are due to side effects of time tampering. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 8:38
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Yes

If your world has allowed for you to find a time travel device then you are able to circumvent rules we normally perceive as realistic, balanced and "fair". The following may happen if you use such a device for personal gain. If you are able to make this time alteration, why should you be the only one? For every person that bends the rules of reality to create a new one, there may also be an entity that is compelled to stop you, or at least teach you a lesson.

Time machines, Genie lamps, boxes of Pandora, if you try to bend the fundamentals of reality for personal gain, you might have the hidden workings behind reality staring right back. They might see you as a criminal. They might want to teach you a lesson.

When you travel back after investing in Google, you may find yourself in a world that helps you reflect on your crime. One that quickly comes to mind is that your investment and all your money you had before the jump evaporated. Everyone uses bitcoin now, a nightmare indeed! And on top of that, you are not registered in the system so you'll never be able to own anything and live estranged and seccluded.

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    $\begingroup$ You have a very benevolent image of beings that dislike you "try to bend the fundamentals of reality for personal gain" enough to consider you a criminal. I like that. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ I would say if you did it that way, "you're doing it wrong". I would want to find the very best idea startups and fund them so much they become several times as good, deliberately picking ones that provide real tangible benefit for humanity in the long run. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 18:28
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It is possible, but mostly preventable.

Most major tech companies were founded by small groups of people with relatively little money. Adding a few hundred thousand dollars early enough on could make you a major stockholder.

Even by "doing nothing", your partial ownership of the company could impact the result of BoD appointments, stabilize the value of the stocks preventing historically significant buy-ups or sell-offs, or encourage complacency among leadership at a time that a decisive move is needed.

One example I can think of would be buying a significant number of shares in Apple. When you jump back to the future, your action could result in Steve Jobs being unable to purchase a majority holding over Apple (because he can't get you to sell your shares). Without this event, there would be no iPod and the company would have continued on its course to bankruptcy.

That said, you have future insights that tell you what choices the company is supposed to make; so, if you study a company's history well and stay in the past and manage your investment, you can use your partial ownership to manipulate events such that all the same CEOs get elected, and all the same dirty deals go through, etc.

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Possible, but unlikely

It's important to consider the fact that investing in the company generally means gaining some fractional control over the company. Investing means you obtain a fraction of the profits for the company, but you also have the responsibility to help make decisions for the company. Assuming that you will be absent for 20 years following your initial investment, this could create an issue, depending on the size of the company and the stage at which you invested in it.

If your investment is very small compared to the value of all the shares of the company, your absence would likely have no impact. Your vote would be just one of thousands of votes, and would likely have no real impact over how the company is governed. In this case, you're safe walking away for 20 years.

But suppose you become an investor at an early stage in the company, such that your initial investment of the profits from your house sale actually comprise a significant chunk of the company's value. Your vote would have significant implications for the future of the company, how long the company would survive, and what you could expect to sell your shares for 20 years later.

In the second scenario, you likely would have to appoint someone to watch over your investment and make wise business decisions for the company. But that person wasn't part of the company in the original timeline, and likely will be displacing someone who was part of the original timeline and helped secure the company's future. That's where the uncertainty lies in this scenario.

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    $\begingroup$ There are also stocks which do not give right of vote, in exchange of a higher dividend. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Good point. A company can have different types of shares, each with a varying degree of voting rights. Common stock, preferred stock, Class A, Class B, Class C. The reliability of success here depends heavily on how a company handles its investors. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah -- moreover, in the early-stage case, you will have (at least partially) displaced some other early investor(s), whose actions were to have been significant in the company's growth. (E.g., the effect might even be to nudge a key early employee toward cashing out and retiring early.) $\endgroup$
    – dgould
    Commented Sep 26, 2019 at 18:53
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Utterly high

Think about it: As you described, You go back 20 years in time to sell your house - your only asset - to invest the money and using your entire savings.

Now you are homeless and nearly broke with stocks that aren't worth much for some years to come. Good look with getting support from your family and friends for such foolishness. Surviving the next 20 years as the same person you were before you jumped back might prove rather challenging...

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the important one. The change in situation for the old you is much worse, you may have to kill him to be able to sell his house and then hop back into the future that no longer has you listed, ooops. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 8:36
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From a time travel perspective, you wouldn't have any effect because you had always gone back and purchased the shares. There wasn't an original time when you hadn't purchased the shares, and then another modified time where you have.

The multiple timelines concept of the movies is a fiction. There is only 1 timeline, and events in the past cannot be changed. This doesn't mean that you can't go back to the past and have an effect. Instead, it means that if you do go back to the past, your effect has already been accounted for by your actions, which happened in the past.

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    $\begingroup$ sounds like the voice of experience $\endgroup$
    – JCRM
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ "The multiple timelines concept of the movies is a fiction." Isn't that exactly what this website is about? This question is clearly asking about traveling to a different timeline. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ "The multiple timelines concept of the movies is a fiction." The single timeline conception of time travel is also a fiction. That's why it's important that we know which model the OP wants to use. This is a good answer for single timeline models, though. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 15:49
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Whether you change the timeline or not in the specific realm (here: the future development of the companies you invested in) depends on the significance of your actions.

The more inconspicuous your trade is in volume and manner, the less likely it is to influence that company.

This unfortunately limits early investments in companies when they were small. It is also harder to invest anonymously before a company goes public — ideally you'd like to be among the first investors in google, in 1999, but these are all well known.

If you waited till the IPO, which raised $1.67 billion, you could probably invest a few dozen million dollars through middle men without attracting attention, at \$85 per share; today it's more than \$1000. Good enough?

That said, there is always a chance for an only loosely related change which creates a butterfly effect: Some engineer gets hired from your money who would otherwise have founded their own company, the new owner of your house likes it so much that they don't move to LA so Cars doesn't look the same etc.

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Look at Volume

Using the two stocks you identified : GOOG and FB. GOOG is reading for over USD 1,200 a share, but only around 1 million shares were bought and sold today. FB is trading at USD 180 a share, but 16 million shares are moving.

You could look at how much of a splash you make on the timeline by how much money you move to buy in. If you bought in USD 1 million, worth of either today, you'd have made a 0.1% splash on that days trading.

FB and GOOG both have only ~3x their value in the last 3 years. ~6x in the last 7 years. Therefore, how much money you'd hope to make is limited by how big a splash you're willing to tolerate and how long you're willing to wait to collect. Assuming the trend is steady, your 0.1% disruption of the timeline converts your USD 1 million investment into USD 6 million over ~10 years. However inflation and taxes are both going to bite into that, so you'll walk away feeling like you roughly doubled your money, in terms of present-day purchasing power.

This kind-of modest payout, I think, might incentivize taking a bolder risk. Which might be a good story.

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Your investment decisions will almost certainly change some stock(s) performance over long terms, but which stocks will be impacted significantly, and in which direction, is impossible to predict. The solution to this problem is to use the same risk mitigation strategies that you would use to invest in the stock market absent any future knowledge: put your eggs in many baskets.

Rather than pick a single winning stock (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc), choose a diverse portfolio of stocks across multiple industries and countries that each significantly outperformed the market, and spread your investments out over those companies. That way, even if some of them turn out to be duds, you should still have a bunch of winners in the rest of your portfolio.

(Incidentally, add Keurig Green Mountain to your portfolio: those K-Cups are a freaking gold mine. My commission on that tip is 5%, you can pay me in the past on that newfangled Paypal thing.)

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