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Here's the defining question to determine if you're an investor: Do you want the stock market to go up or down?
If you answered up, you're one of two things: retired and living on the proceeds of your investments, or a short-term trader looking to unload a position. If you're an investor -- the person for whom this book is intended -- you want the market to drop big and stay down for as long as you can invest new money. You know that's the only way to find lots of bargains and make lots of money over the long haul. Only when you're ready to be withdrawing money to support yourself in retirement do you want the market to rally.
But I'll be the first to admit that actually wishing for a big market drop is psychologically tough. I think back to the fall of 1998, when, after a period of astounding gains, the financial markets weren't doing so well. Russia had effectively defaulted on its government debt and thrown enough gasoline on the smoldering ruins of emerging markets to start a worldwide financial firestorm. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 20 percent from its peak, an event that had not occurred in several years. Small stocks were in a virtual depression, the market for initial public offerings was barren, and even the vast bond market had stalled, with the exception, of course, of the supersafe market for U.S. Treasury debt. The fallout from this market malaise spread rapidly. Big banks took heavy losses, hedge funds that had made huge and risky market bets were foundering, and the Federal Reserve was sufficiently frightened of the economic consequences that might follow that it quickly cut short-term interest rates to head off a recession. Fear was rampant.
What a great time that was to be buying stocks!
Yet what did I hear? Groans and moans from people who had seen their 401(k) plan balances drop 15 percent or so (and these were people who wouldn't be retiring for twenty or more years). Older investors who had been thinking about taking retirement started talking about staying around a few more years "until things get better." The only people who seemed to be enjoying life during that upsetting period were those who had most of their money invested in bonds and other safe investments. They took full advantage of the rare opportunity to gloat about how smart they were to avoid risky stocks.
There will always be an element of emotion involved in investing. After all, the nature of investing is to take risks seeking reward. As long as the rewards seem to far outweigh the risks, life is a bed of roses and account balances can rise to the sky. The only intelligent thing to do is put everything in stocks and bask in the riches that result. But when the risks seize the upper hand, as they inevitably will from time to time, panic sets in. Prices of everything are falling and can only fall further. There is no end in sight to the bad news. The same stocks that had you anticipating early retirement now seem like lead weights that must be cut loose if you're to survive financially. The all-too-frequent result of such emotional turmoil is this simple but disastrous formula: Buy high, sell low.
One key, then, to a successful investment program is to minimize the emotional component of investing. The better able you are to set aside emotions and act logically, the better your investment portfolio is going to perform over the years to come. This book is aimed at helping you temper the emotional roller coaster of investing.
Another key to a successful investment program is knowledge. But not the kind of knowledge you're thinking about. You probably want to be able to analyze a balance sheet and income statement of a company, figure out if some stock's price-earnings ratio is in line with those of other companies in the same industry, and project where interest rates are going. All that stuff is great if you're working on Wall Street and need to impress your clients. But that isn't the kind of knowledge I'm talking about. I'm much more interested that you know what can't be known. And that's easy: you can't know where stocks or interest rates are going. No matter how deeply you delve into business texts, no matter how many finance courses you take, and no matter how much some Wall Street brokerage firm is willing to pay you, the simple fact is that neither you nor anyone else knows what is going to happen to any single stock, to the overall stock market, or to interest rates. And if anyone tells you he can do these things, he's either lying or deluding himself. That's why I'm going to emphasize throughout this book that you do everything you can to avoid contact with the investment industry. I want you to enter a brokerless world where you make your own decisions free from the pressures and solicitations of people who will make money on your investments regardless of whether or not you do.
I'm not offering to make you a great investor. My very firm view is that it is exceedingly difficult to be a great investor. Peter Lynches and Warren Buffetts are few and far between. I don't know what makes them tick, and apparently nobody else does, either. People who try to emulate them come up short for some reason. And don't think that both Peter and Warren haven't made some bad calls. But it is my equally firm view that it isn't difficult at all to be a very good investor. There is no reason you cannot earn a healthy return on your investments, one that is consistent with your appetite for risk, if you simply understand that there are limits to what you can expect. And, perhaps as important, you won't waste hours of your time and thousands of your dollars in a futile effort to beat the market.
Presumably most of your investments will be made in U.S. financial markets. The U.S. stock market is the most efficient in the world. It is huge, highly liquid, well regulated, and thoroughly studied. What that means in practical terms is that it is well-nigh impossible for the average individual investor to know something about the value of a particular stock that somebody else hasn't already discovered and acted upon. The price you're quoted by a broker for a stock already reflects all that knowledge. Stocks that seem bargains usually deserve the price at which they're trading. Equally true, stocks that seem ludicrously overpriced also probably deserve the price at which they're trading.
I certainly don't mean to discourage you from investing. There are times when overall stock prices, responding to the overwhelming emotions that can grip millions of investors simultaneously, do fall to levels that are attractive. Certainly the crash of 1987 is one example. Those who steeled themselves to buy heavily in the aftermath of that plunge can look back on the crash as a seminal event in their portfolio's growth. And individual stocks can also be subject to emotional tumult, affording quick-witted investors a chance to buy at a reasonable price (or, better yet, to sell at an unreasonable price). But those occasions occur infrequently, and to wait until they occur is not a sound investment strategy.
I'd rather you go into investing with your eyes wide open, recognizing that it is unlikely that your stock and bond picks will outperform the overall market by any wide margin for any significant length of time. They certainly won't if you don't take careful account of the costs of investing -- brokerage fees, research publications, and software, for example -- or the tax consequences (Uncle Sam will gladly take up to 40 percent of any profits you make if you let him). More important, I want you to be able to minimize the amount of time you spend investing. You can't put a dollar figure on the hours wasted chasing hot stocks or the consequences of the stress on you and your family as markets and brokers whipsaw you around, only to leave you with subpar results. When you have finished this book, I hope you'll set your sights realistically and make every effort to become a good investor, not a great investor.
My wife, Jane, and I spend a lot of our free time on our sailboat Galaxie, ranging from the sandy shoals of the Bahamas to the rockbound coast of Maine. As a consequence we understand and appreciate the role of careful design and construction in building a seaworthy boat. Boats that endure the stresses of the ocean for years aren't thrown together willy-nilly. Rather, they reflect much forethought and an understanding of how they will be used, where they will go, and how much they will cost. One can't have all the latest electronic gadgets, the water toys, and the spaciousness of a floating palace without paying a high price. But one can have a fine boat that provides comfort, safety, and the ability to go anywhere in the world at a reasonable cost. My intention is to help you build a fine investment portfolio that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life, no matter your age now. It will take time to build. Indeed, you'll be working on it for the rest of your life. But that isn't any less true of boats. Own one long enough and the engine needs to be replaced, the sails mended, ropes replaced, and the hull painted.
Like a boat, an investment portfolio can be as simple or as complex as you want. I have helped deliver big sailboats and even bigger powerboats up and down the East Coast. Some of the big motor yachts have been true marvels of engineering, design, power, and decor. The people who designed and built those boats were obviously very talented craftsmen. But the owners paid a huge price, not only to have the boats built, but to maintain and use them. Most of us have a hard enough time keeping up with simple suburban tract houses or two-bedroom co-ops and condos. We don't need such hugely complex and expensive objects, and that's true of our investments, too. A simple, low-cost portfolio can provide everything most of us need. There may be times and circumstances when you'll want to add some frills to your portfolio, and that's fine. Just know that they will invariably come at a cost and with a risk.
My ultimate aim is to free you from the tyranny of the financial services industry and the wasted time spent chasing outsize returns that only luck can produce. Part I is all about understanding and using the various vehicles -- stocks, bonds, money managers, and mutual funds -- to develop the most powerful and efficient portfolio you can while avoiding the psychological and emotional traps that Wall Street uses to get its hands in your pocketbook. Yet I begin in chapter 1 by urging you not to worry so much about controlling your investments as controlling your finances. I've been writing about investments and personal finance issues for years, and I hear frequently from people who, despite excellent incomes, are having immense difficulties with their finances. The problem is they're overreaching, trying to hit too many financial targets with too few dollars. You can't have an income of $100,000, spend $102,000, and have much left over for a disciplined and fruitful investment program. One common but dangerous solution that many people use is to try for outsize returns to make up for the lack of a steady flow of new money into their investment portfolios. I think that a successful long-term investment program is the result of, not a substitute for, a long-term approach to saving. Attempting to meet any financial goals through excessive returns on investments is a virtual guarantee of disappointment. Meeting those same goals through a disciplined savings program that funnels a steady stream of new money into an investment portfolio is a virtual guarantee of success, provided, of course, that the goals are reasonable in the first place. I'll show you in chapter 1 the rather dramatic effects that even small changes in spending, savings, and investment patterns can have on long-term investment results.
Chapter 2 discusses various aspects of stocks, which I think should be at the core of every investor's portfolio. Historically stocks have produced the best returns of any asset class, and the inherent nature of stocks -- ownership of a company -- certainly makes them the most interesting of assets. Not surprisingly, stocks are the arena in which financial professionals compete most fervently to capture your attention. Money managers and brokers bombard us constantly with their pitches, claiming to know which stocks to buy and sell, and they always have reasons that sound completely plausible. Many of us set out to emulate them, buying what they bought and selling what they sold. Yet when one examines the performance of most money managers, they aren't even capable of matching the performance of simple stock market indexes. Even the best, who consistently outperform the indexes (there aren't many), make big mistakes, buying stocks that drop in value or ignoring those that soon rise. As I noted earlier, the stock market is an incredibly efficient place. It is virtually impossible in most circumstances to know something about any given stock that will give you a leg up on all the professionals who are paid millions of dollars each year to figure out which stocks to buy or sell. I'll discuss in nonacademic terms the efficient market hypothesis and how that should govern your approach to stocks and the stock market.
Stocks are the vehicle I think you should use to accumulate wealth. Bonds are the vehicle I think you should use to preserve wealth. While stocks should be the core of any long-term investor's portfolio, bonds are a second essential ingredient. The very word bond sounds safe and secure. And bonds should be used as a safety net in your portfolio, to offset the occasional shocks that occur when stocks get clobbered, either justly or unjustly. In your overall investment portfolio bonds play the role of the control rods in a nuclear reactor, tempering the speed of the reactions to keep everyone safe but not slowing them so much that no energy is produced. But not all bonds are created equal. You can buy U.S. Treasury bonds, which are considered by most experts to be the safest investment in the world. Or you can be greedy and reach for higher yields, only to wind up saddled with a portfolio of aptly named "junk bonds." And while the bond market seems to many investors to be much more staid than the hyperkinetic stock market, don't be fooled: there's plenty of volatility in bond prices and plenty of unscrupulous dealers are trying to wrest money out of your wallet in the guise of selling safety. Indeed, the bond market remains the most opaque financial market in the United States, where prices are a secret held closely by the insiders. In chapter 3 I'll discuss a variety of approaches to keeping your wealth safe and point out what's wrong with each. I'll give you my own recommendation -- inflation-indexed Treasury bonds -- while freely acknowledging that it's far from perfect. I just think T-bonds are better than anything else at protecting what you've accumulated.
As you accumulate financial assets a lot of people are going to want to help you manage your money. Indeed, I'm one of them. As it turns out, I'm willing to charge you a lot less than most of the others, and I think my advice is better than theirs. But that will be for you to decide. Chapter 4, "Money Managers and Mutual Funds," gives you my take on the financial services world. My obvious bias is toward mutual funds. There are good reasons that so many people love mutual funds. Simplicity. Diversity. Low costs. What stocks were to an earlier generation, mutual funds are to today's investors. The relative merits of various Internet funds can occupy entire dinner conversations. People are always wanting to know -- and any number of pundits are always willing to say -- what mutual funds they should own. Today. As opposed to yesterday. Mutual funds have become something to be bought for quick gains and discarded when the gains end in favor of some other fund that's on the rise. In their quest to win more of the vast sums flowing into the mutual fund industry, the funds themselves encourage this short-term view. Some funds are even priced hourly for those in the trading crowd who dart into and out of them, and there has recently been a proliferation of exchange-traded funds, which you can buy and sell instantly just like stocks. But investors using mutual funds in that way run head-on into the same problem that confronts them in the stock market: Which funds are going to provide the best returns?
The answer: Nobody knows. Which is why I'm a hearty advocate of index mutual funds. You'll never beat the market with an index fund for the simple reason that the index fund is the market. But you'll never do worse than the market, either (well, maybe a tiny bit worse since index funds have administrative costs that the indexes don't). And by choosing index funds, you're instantly free of the time spent trying to figure out which funds will be hot and free from the costs of paying the high salaries of fund managers who can't routinely beat the indexes.
I'll admit right now that taking control of your investments isn't going to be very exciting if you do it my way, free of brokers and hassles. And you're constantly going to be reading or hearing about all kinds of tempting ways to make big bucks fast. But in every case I know of, these investing fads have come and gone, leaving only their promoters significantly better off. The current rage is day trading, which involves jumping quickly into and out of a stock to capture gains. The people who do well -- and the firms that rent them space and equipment and handle their trades -- love to brag about how much money they're making. I think their memories are probably very selective, conveniently recalling the victories, easily forgetting the defeats. And every time I hear or read about these people, they're telling us the price at which they bought the stock and then sold it. What they're aren't telling us is the size of their tax bill, the trading commissions, and the interest rate on the loans that many take out to fund their foray into trading. Add all those costs, and the returns aren't nearly as good as they sounded at first. And, of course, the players who do poorly mostly just slink quietly away, although at least one has gone berserk and killed colleagues.
Part II of the book introduces you to what is probably the single most important concept you need to understand: asset allocation. That's just a fancy term to describe the process of balancing your investment portfolio among cash, stocks, and bonds to suit your own lifestyle, your financial goals, and your tolerance for risk. It's far more important to get this part right than to figure out which mutual funds or stocks to buy. And asset allocation is a dynamic process. If you follow my advice about saving money as a source of fuel for your investment program, you'll need to think from time to time about where that new money is being invested. Maybe your goals change, maybe your income changes. In either case you'll want to adjust your asset allocation. Even if you do nothing after making an initial investment, the balance in your portfolio will shift over time as one asset outperforms another. That, too, will trigger the need to make some adjustments. I also show you how to view your financial life in its entirety rather than as a collection of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. An understanding of your total financial picture can make a big difference in how you allocate money among various investment vehicles.
I approach the question of asset allocation through the creation of hypothetical portfolios that demonstrate the principles of conscientious saving and investing. I could reduce all of this part of the book to just three actions: Get invested. Stay invested. Add to your investments. While anyone following that advice would do very well, the truth is that individual circumstances vary enormously and affect how each of us would go about accomplishing those three goals. Since individual circumstances would produce nearly infinite variations in how to build an investment portfolio, I've chosen to present options based mostly on an investor's age. Although not infallible, age usually correlates fairly well with income level, investment time horizon, and certain financially significant events, such as home purchases, college education, and the ultimate goal, retirement. Thus I have devoted separate chapters to new investors getting started at different times in their lives. The portfolios are developed roughly around decade-long intervals. There are suggested approaches for people in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties and those who are already or almost retired. I know that you'll want to turn immediately to the chapter that covers your age bracket, and that's fine. Read it first. But then go back and peruse chapters aimed at investors both younger and older than yourself. In each case you'll probably find some advice that might be useful to you at your age -- or that you can tuck away to make use of five or ten years from now.
At the end of the book you'll find "An Investor's Tool Kit." It contains helpful information about what I believe are the best index funds to use to achieve your financial goals. It also contains a directory of Federal Reserve banks and branches that will help you set up a Treasury Direct account to buy Treasury bonds at government auctions. More important, there are tools in the tool kit that will allow you to do some "what if" planning. They'll help you calculate how much money you might amass over the years and how much you can afford to spend once you're in retirement.
The Tool Kit also provides the URL -- winning.wsj.com -- that will take those of you familiar with the Internet to some more interactive planning tools to further test some financial scenarios.
There are two lessons that I hope will become very clear in the simple portfolios I have constructed in part II. The first is that the earlier you begin investing, the easier and the more lucrative it will be. Yet young people don't understand the value of making even small investments when they're in their twenties, and people nearing retirement who haven't paid much attention to their finances realize too late just how difficult it will be to accomplish their goals. The second lesson is that stocks are the best way to accomplish long-term financial goals. If you compare my approach to investing with that offered by many financial advisers, you'll find I'm in favor of holding larger portions of your wealth in stocks. I believe stocks will get you where you're going faster and give you a bigger cushion when you get there.
Are there risks in this approach? Absolutely! Stocks are volatile and unpredictable. While I use past performance as a guide to what you might expect, there isn't any guarantee whatsoever that stocks will continue to perform as they have in the past. Certainly you can't expect stocks to deliver the 20 percent or more in annual returns they did in the late 1990s. But my point is that there are risks in any approach to investing. You could, for instance, put all your money in government-insured bank accounts. But you would be running an enormous risk that inflation would destroy that money's value over time, leaving you sadly wanting when it comes time to retire. Given that we all have to make a bet, I'm willing to bet that stocks will continue to be the single best place to invest for periods of ten years or more. If you're uncomfortable with the proportions of stocks that I recommend, that's fine. You can always temper your portfolio by shifting a larger proportion of it to bonds. But you must accept that you'll likely have lower long-term returns that may affect your ability to reach your long-term goals.
There will be numerous temptations along the way to investment success. Many of them will be laid before you by the financial services industry, always eager to find a way to get its hand in your pocketbook. But some of them will simply arise out of your innate curiosity. You might be tempted, for instance, to try to analyze the nation's economy, the overall stock market, or even individual stocks. At the very least you'll probably be reading a newspaper (I hope it's The Wall Street Journal) and will come across economic and corporate news and analysis. If you wanted to -- or if you were being paid to -- you could spend all day every day parsing the thousands of economic and market statistics that pour from government and the financial services industry and putting your own spin on news events. But then you'd be right back where you didn't want to be, devoting precious time to endeavors that almost certainly aren't worth the effort. I'll make it easy by putting things in perspective for you. The answer to the question "How bad can it get?'' is pretty scary until you know the answer to a second question: "How likely is it to get that bad?" Not very.
When you're finished with this book, put it on your bookshelf. Avoid the temptation to give it to your children, your brother, or a good friend. Or to throw it away. Come back to it from time to time, especially in times of market turmoil, when you may be doubting your own wisdom in setting up your portfolio the way you have. The United States has enjoyed an unprecedented span of prosperity that has drawn millions of people into the stock and bond markets, and I'm delighted about that. Yet each day that passes means we're all one day closer to the next big market disruption, and a true bear market will doubtless convince many investors that they've made a huge mistake by investing in stocks. But if you have used this book correctly to understand the basics of the investment process and to tailor your portfolio to your own needs, you will have the confidence to weather that storm. You may want to do some fine-tuning in times of trouble, but remember that a well-built house can stand up to the tests of time with the proper maintenance and care. So will your portfolio.
Copyright © 2001 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
How This Book Will Make You a Better Investor
PART ONE: LESSONS FOR LONG-TERM INVESTORS
CHAPTER 1: Supercharging Your Portfolio with Savings
Strategic Savings: Opportunity Costs and Mental Money
Understanding Debt: The Good and the Bad
Making Your Savings Work for You
The Process of Saving
Tory's Portfolios: Stoking Investment Performance with Saving
CHAPTER 2: Stocks: The Foundation of a Strong Portfolio
How to Think About Stocks and the Stock Market
The Odds Against You: The Efficient Market Hypothesis
Finding Value in Stocks 63
Growth Stocks: How High, How Fast?
Narrowing the Field: Market Capitalization
The Myth of IPOs
CHAPTER 3: Bonds: The Safety Net
How to Think About Bonds
Bond Yields and Bond Prices
Bond Pricing: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You
Calculating Bond Returns
The Bond Menagerie
Building a Bond Ladder
A Word on Treasury Direct
CHAPTER 4: Money Managers and Mutual Funds
Closed-End and Open-End Funds
Money Market Funds
Stock Funds: Past Performance Is No Indicator of Future Performance
The Simple Solution: Index Funds
Index Fund Alternatives: Exchange-Traded Funds
PART TWO: PORTFOLIOS FOR LONG-TERM INVESTORS
CHAPTER 5: Understanding Risk and Return
Profit and Pain: Worst-Case Scenarios
CHAPTER 6: Getting an Early Start: Portfolios for Long Time Horizons (and Little Money)
The Simple Portfolio
The Flexible Portfolio
Dedicated DINKs (Dual-Income, No Kids)
CHAPTER 7: Getting Serious: Portfolios for Your Thirties
Singles and DINKs in Their Thirties
Escaping the Rat Race
Couples with Kids: The Tuition Target
CHAPTER 8: Time Is of the Essence: Portfolios for Your Forties
DINKs at Middle Age
You've Got Those Tuition Bill Blues
CHAPTER 9: Making the Most of Limited Time: Portfolios for Your Fifties
Unlocking Home Equity Values
CHAPTER 10: Unleashing Your Assets: Portfolios for Retirement
More Strategies for Unlocking Home Equity
Portfolio Summary: Ages 25 Through 65
Epilogue: The Value of Time and Money
An Investor's Tool Kit
The World's Best Index Funds
Setting Up a Treasury Direct Account
How Much Can You Save? The Power of Compounding
How Much Can You Spend? Withdrawing Money in Retirement