By Alexander Green, Chief Investment Strategist, The Oxford Club
At conferences, I'm often asked, "What's the best piece of investment advice you ever received?"
That's a tough one. Over the past 30 years, I've been a stockbroker, an investment analyst, a money manager and a financial writer. I've made good money in the market. And I've taken my lumps (especially in the early days).
However, the question being asked isn't "What are the most important lessons you've learned from your own experiences?" Conference-goers want to hear about the single best piece of investment advice I've ever received.
I try to avoid passing along the obvious ones, even though they hold great value for those who haven't heard them.
Take Warren Buffett's classic encapsulation of stock market psychology, "You want to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful."
If you have the guts to follow this one rule, you can ignore everything you ever learned about sales, earnings, cash flow and profit margins. When investors are panicked and filled with pessimism, buy. And when they are supremely confident an asset has nowhere to go but up - be it stocks, gold or real estate - get the heck out.
This Time, It's the Same
If you're ever tempted to doubt Buffett's contrarian advice, you might remember another gem from investment legend John Templeton, "The four most dangerous words in investing are: 'This time, it's different.'"
Investors who ever got fully margined on stocks, highly leveraged on preconstruction condos or ran to cash near a market bottom could have saved themselves a lot of agony (and money) by heeding Templeton's words. Bubbles form. Bubbles burst. Asset performance reverts to the mean. Bank on it.
Then there's this line uttered by boxing champ Mike Tyson, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
Tyson didn't mean this as market advice, of course, but it's entirely apropos. In the past, I worked with hundreds of individual investors and was surprised how folks who were confident they would invest for the long term and buy the dips abandoned ship as soon as the waves began hitting the deck. Everything was hunky-dory until they got punched in the mouth. Then all bets were off.
Your Worst Enemy
But, in my estimation, the truly best piece of investment counsel I ever received was dug from the pages of Benjamin Graham's investment classic The Intelligent Investor. "The investor's chief problem - and even his worst enemy - is likely to be himself."
If you want to see the person most responsible for your investment plans not working out the way you imagined, go stand in front of the mirror.
If you say it's not your fault because you turned your money over to a broker, insurance agent or registered rep who handled it poorly, well, who made that decision to delegate?
If you take advice from an investment letter editor who's been on the wrong side of the market the last five years, well, who decided to subscribe to that letter and act on the advice?
If you say you don't know enough to manage your money yourself, whose fault is that? Investing is not rocket science. Yes, it takes a little time - and a little trial and error - to learn the basics. But if you've spent more time watching Seinfeld reruns than obtaining the knowledge essential to securing your financial future, you'll find little sympathy here.
Taking responsibility for your financial future is liberating. After all, you can't control the economy, can't affect the financial markets, can't set Fed policy and can't foresee the future. But the really important factors you can control.
The Seven Factors
For example, the future size of your investment portfolio will be determined by seven - and only seven - factors:
- How much you save
- How long you let it compound
- Your asset allocation
- Your security selection
- The annual performance of your investments
- The expenses you absorb
- And the taxes you pay.
Only one of these factors you cannot control: the annual performance of your investments. So what should you do? Revisit the list. You should save as much as you can, let it compound as long as you can, asset allocate properly, diversify broadly, minimize your investment costs and tax-manage your portfolio.
If you don't understand these things, you need to. (We talk about them regularly here.) If you aren't doing these things, you should be - in both good times and bad.
History shows that the highest returns don't accrue to those with the biggest brains... but to those with the strongest stomachs. Wall Street is littered with the bones of those who knew exactly what to do at market tops and bottoms yet couldn't bring themselves to do it.
In sum, it's only when you take responsibility for your investment decisions that you experience success and the security and satisfaction that come with it. And if you don't find success?
As Shakespeare reminds us, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Disclosure: We expressly forbid our writers from having a financial interest in their own securities recommendations to readers. All of our employees and agents must wait 24 hours after online publication or 72 hours after the mailing of printed-only publication prior to following an initial recommendation. Any investments recommended by Investment U should be made only after consulting with your investment advisor and only after reviewing the prospectus or financial statements of the company.