You Only Live Once

credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/49568889@N08/7684077336/sizes/m/in/photostream/

I’m a HUGE fan of Lonely Island. Came across this awesome music video titled YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, feat Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar (who?).

I love it because it makes fun of people who take risk a little too seriously (“Two words about furniture: KILLING MACHINES!!”).

But while we scoff at the idea that we should stop going to clubs because loud music is bad for your ears, it amazes me that so many young people adopt that very same mindset when it comes to investing.

Here’s an interesting thought: Investing in the stock market is risky in the short run, but it’s the safest investment you can have in the long run.

The stock market is risky in the short run

Let’s tackle the first half of that last para first. Check out the returns from the stock market’s five worst years, from Financial Ramblings:

  1. 1931, -52.7%
  2. 2008, -33.8%
  3. 1930, -33.8%
  4. 1937, -32.8%
  5. 1974, -27.6%

So yep, in the very short term, buying and holding stocks is risky. Based on what history tells us, you could lose as much as half of your portfolio in a single year – Investors sure as hell weren’t popping champagne in 1931.

But it kicks ass in the long run

But it’s a very different story when you’re holding stocks for long periods of time.

Jeremy Siegel (whose classes I used to crash in college to leech off his market insights – woot woot!) argued in Chapter 2 of his book Stocks for the Long Run, that with a sufficiently long holding period, stocks are actually less risky than bonds.

According to Wikipedia, “During 1802–2001, the worst 1-year returns for stocks and bonds were -38.6% and -21.9% respectively. However for a holding period of 10-years, the worst performance for stocks and bonds were -4.1% and -5.4%; and for a holding period of 20 years, stocks have always been profitable.” Bonds, however, once fell as much as -3% per year below inflation.

In short, Siegel found that if you held stocks for 17 years or more, you never lost money even in the worst case scenario. 

Okay, so critics might claim that his findings are way too optimistic, and that the stock market’s prosperity in the 20th century may not necessarily repeat itself. But what’s the alternative? Investing in scammy gold buyback schemes?

The truth is, based on any historical record so far, the safest, and best, long-term investment for most young people has clearly been a diversified portfolio of stocks. Yes, even after you account for the stock market crashes in the past couple of years.

Young Heart, Run Free

And therein lies the awesomeness of being young and sexy – as young people, we have the luxury of having enough time. Enough time for a long career of earning money ahead of us. Enough time to hold on to our stocks without worrying about their fluctuations in any given day/month/year, knowing fully well that in the long run, we’ll come out on top.

So please. Stop getting intimidated by the stories of banks failing, and quantitative easing, and Justin Bieber’s Twitter account getting hacked. These are all short run risks (especially if you’re Justin Bieber), which are irrelevant if you’re holding out for the long term.

Take a little bit of risk in the short run to enjoy some awesomeness in the long run.

You only live once.

Image credit: TheOnyxBirmingham

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How Not To Suck At Investing

Here’s the problem about investing – we know that it’s good for us, but most people suck at it. We all have an uncle somewhere who lost his entire retirement savings by betting on Asian stocks in 1997, tech stocks in 2000, or financial stocks in 2008. He held on to his portfolio as the market plummeted, losing thousands of dollars every day, until he couldn’t take the pain anymore and got out.. only to see the market climb back up again. On the flip side, we see research that says individual investors pulled more money out of the stock market…. only to watch the Dow march higher and higher. (as reported in the WSJ)

There are thousands of reasons why people suck at investing – behavioral biases, having way too many choices, overconfidence, etc – but I think the number one reason is that people just have the wrong idea of what investing actually is. Here’s what runs through most people’s heads when someone tries to talk to them about investing: “Investing… how to get rich! Picking stocks. What stocks do I pick? Maybe Facebook. Or Apple. Hope the price rises by like 10x next year and I’ll be RICHHHHHH. Ca$$$h money baby!!” Zomg. Kill me now.

Newsflash dude: Investing isn’t about picking stocks. I’ll say that again: Investing isn’t about picking stocks. Now say it to yourself three times every night before you go to sleep.

Okay I’m hearing the crowd of angry “investors” outside my door, armed to the teeth with pitchforks and torches right now: What?! It’s not about picking stocks?  But Warren Buffett, the world’s greatest investor, says we should pick good businesses at cheap prices, and hold them till like, FOREVER. And then we’ll be rich!! True, you could totally do that successfully… if you were Warren Buffett. He owns Berkshire Hathaway, a company of full-time, well-trained researchers and analysts who spend their entire careers searching for good companies to buy. He has contacts with Fortune 500 CEOs and can meet with them whenever he wants. He understands things about the businesses he buys that no individual investor can even dream about. Now if you think that simply picking up a book entitled “How to Pick Stocks Like Warren Buffett” and flipping through a few annual reports is going to make you a superstar investor… think again.

So investing isn’t about picking stocks. Rather, it’s about putting your money in assets that will grow over time and will generate an income for you. That’s it. Sure, you could plough your money into Facebook or Apple or whatever the hot stock is at the moment, but is there a chance that it could plummet to zero in 10 years? Of course. Companies fail all the time – all it takes is one CEO scandal, one accounting fraud, one new player on the market (think about what Google did to Yahoo), and your company, once the darling of all the investment pundits, is filing for Chapter 11. I’m not saying that individual stocks are bad investments – of course there are many that have a long history of excellent returns – but there’s another asset that provides awesome returns, with way lower risk than any single high quality stock you can find out there. It’s called the stock market. (cue dramatic music – bom bom bomm!!!).

Think about it – companies fail all the time, but it’s impossible for the stock market to go to absolutely zero, unless we get annihilated by a huge alien spaceship, in which case you have bigger things to worry about. The stock market literally comprises of thousands of stocks, and thus for it to go to zero would involve all the companies in it to go bankrupt – ie: extremely unlikely. Remember back in Finance 101 when they used to tell you that diversification is the key to successful investing? Well, buying the entire market effectively diversifies away the risk of any individual company. It’s not entirely riskless (to my financial nerds out there, you still have “market risk” to deal with), but it’s a whole lot less risky than owning any particular stock.

Another thing – the stock market has an impressive track record that’s freakin hard to match. I can’t think of any individual stock that has been around for the entire duration of the stock market’s 200-ish year old history, with a historical return of 7 – 9% per year, depending on who you talk to.

Okay, I’m hesitant to make the ginormous claim that the stock market always goes up – there have certainly been periods where the stock market has fallen, or stayed stagnant – but give it sufficient time (10, 30, 50 years-ish), and there’s a pretty high chance that it is likely to go up. Why do I think so? Three reasons:

1. Inflation – For most developed economies, prices rise. I don’t think we’re going to go back to those times where McDonald’s serves $5 extra value meals 24-hours a day. (no, those lunch hour deals dont count – I swear they cut the patties in half). Prices of things rise over time, including the prices of your stocks.

2. Survival – the stock market will always be comprised of awesome, solvent (ie: non-bankrupt) companies. If a company goes bankrupt, its stock is automatically removed from the stock market index, and replaced by another. Crappy companies get cut out, and replaced by better, sexier companies. Apple may be the most valuable company in the world right now, but in 30 years it could be bankrupt, and replaced by another trendy company where its fashionable for top management to wear tight-fitting black tees. Owning the stock market index ensures that your portfolio always comprises of the best companies in that market. It’s like being able to fire that one douchey, useless employee in your company, without the guilt or death threats.

3. Population growth – Let’s face it, even with the explosion of investable assets today, stocks remain the de facto investment vehicle of choice to most investors. They aren’t as sexy as fixed income or exotic options (I believe the job posting of “equities in Dallas” is still a laughing stock in the IB world), but nothing trumps the liquidity, the ease, and the transparency of the stock market. And as the world gets larger, more educated, and richer, guess where’s the first place they’re going to plonk their money into? That’s right – the stock market. And Economics 101 teaches you that as demand rises… so will the price.

Notice that everything I mention here is about really large, long-term macro trends. In all likelihood, prices will rise, good companies will replace bad ones, and the world population is going to get larger. I haven’t even talked about the number one economic reason why I think the stock market will rise: Because it’s comprised of businesses. Hundreds and thousands of businesses that earn more every year, year after year. Essentially, buying the stock market means putting your money behind the fact that business will continue throughout the world. And in my opinion, that’s a pretty strong bet, discounting the scenario that the world dissolves into anarchy and we all degenerate into Fred Flintstones. (Always wanted to try those cars with no floors that let you walk everywhere)

So how would you be able to own the entire stock market? It used to be ridiculously expensive to own the entire market because you would have to buy thousands of shares, but now you can do it with a low-cost index fund or ETF (but I’ll leave that for another time).

But don’t take it from me, take it from Warren Buffett, who mentioned that a low-cost index fund, is probably “the best investment that most people can make.” So you may not be able to invest like him, but you sure as hell could take his advice. Think about it 🙂

Some Good Investment Research… and Terrible Advice

I didn’t want to blog about investing till much later, but the Straits Times had an interesting article yesterday titled Stocks v Property. It deals with the issue of “Where the hell should I put my money?!” when it comes to investments. Everyone talks about investments, like: “yeaaahhhh I should really save up for a house… but it’s really expensive…” or “yeaaaahhh I’ve been meaning to invest for awhile now, but I don’t think I have enough time/money/interest…whine whine whine”. But very few people actually get off their ass and actually do some real research on what they should be investing in, so they either 1) don’t invest altogether, or 2) make some stupid investment decisions.

So an article like this gets some of that research done for you, which is awesome. I loved the first part of the article, which used numbers and statistics to back a case and destroy some common assumptions that we all have. The article should’ve just stopped right there, but part 2 of it gave some absolutely terrible investment advice, and I just had to say something about it, in a minute.

Some good investment research

From the ST article: “Retail investors, especially those in Singapore, tend to think of stocks as a short- to medium-term investment. When seeking a long-term investment, most Singaporean investors think of property first. 

But a recent comparison done by the Singapore Exchange (SGX) has shown that, in fact, local stocks have outperformed private residential property over the long run. In the 10 years from 2001 to 2010, the benchmark Straits Times Index (STI) gave an annualised return on investment of 4.9 per cent. Meanwhile, if you had bought property in 2001 and sold it in 2010, you would have made an annualised return on investment of 3.9 per cent over the period.”

Sure, the study excluded returns from dividends and rents, but add those into the mix and stocks have still historically outperformed real estate over the long run. And while 10 years is hardly considered to be the “long run”, other studies have shown that stocks have outperformed real estate over longer time periods (see this New York Times article).

Some terrible investment advice (esp if you’re young):

So the Straits Times article would have been awesome if it had presented the statistics, drawn a conclusion, and stopped there. But page 2 of the article had some terrible investment advice:

Mr Vasu Menon, OCBC Bank’s head of content and research, noted that such wild swings in the stock market are even more prevalent today. As a result, he said, holding on to stocks for the long term is no longer a relevant strategy in this day and age.” (emphasis added).

“So even if stocks had outperformed property between 2001 and 2010, he said, there is no guarantee that they will do the same over the next decade. His advice: Set a target for your stock investments and have the discipline to stick to it. Say, for example, that you hope to make a 30 per cent return on a certain stock within three years. If the stock somehow reaches that 30 per cent target within six months, just sell, Mr Menon said.”

Hello?! Stocks are “no longer a relevant strategy in this day and age” just because the market has been volatile and uncertain? Mr Menon obviously needs a lesson in economic history: volatility and uncertainty are NOTHING NEW to the stock market. They’ve always been there – the Great Depression from 1929, the 1940s when stocks pretty much didn’t go anywhere, the “Black Monday” of 1987, the dot-com bubble of 2000, the collapse of Lehman in 2008…  and yet the US market has averaged a whopping 9.96% annually from 1920 to 2010. Volatility and uncertainty aren’t “unusual”, they’ve been characteristic of the stock market for the past 200 years. And anyone hoping to benefit from the long-run return of the stock market would have to learn to deal with these characteristics.

Next – Mr Menon is advocating that you cut your gains short by selling as soon as your stocks make a certain amount of profit. Sure, that might prevent your portfolio from turning into a loss, but it also prevents you from ever getting rich if the stock market does take off, leaving you sitting by the sidelines and whining like a baby. If you’re a young investor with a steady income and many years of investing ahead, then Mr Menon’s advice is absolutely terrible for you. He’s right that there is no guarantee stock prices will rise over the next decade – there are no guarantees when it comes to investments (unless you consider Ponzi schemes to be “investments”) – but over a long enough time period, there’s a pretty damn high likelihood that the stock market will come out on top.

So what the hell should you do?

Let’s be clear – your job isn’t to make sure that your portfolio makes money over the next 6 months, 1 year, or 3 years. Your job right now is to ACCUMULATE as many assets as you can. Since we know that stocks are ultimately likely to give you the best return over the long run, your job is to make sure that you have as many of those assets as possible, so that your returns will be multiplied across all those assets after a long, healthy period of investing! We’re talking 10, 20, 30 years here. Who cares if volatility wrecks havoc to your portfolio over the short run – it doesn’t make a difference because you’re not thinking of selling within the next couple of years anyway. Ignore the day-to-day fluctuations, ignore the uncertainty and fear that pervade the news, and ignore the stupid, complicated investment advice out there. Investing can be simple, straightforward, and best of all, automated (I’ll be blogging about that in time to come). Stick to your guns and accumulate as many stocks as possible, and you’ll be rewarded in the end.

To me, the answer is pretty clear: multiple studies, research and 200 years of stock market history have shown that the stock market is more likely to give you a better return over the long-term. Do I think that property is a bad investment? Of course not. The best portfolio would consist of both stocks AND real estate, among other asset classes. There’s way too much to say on this topic, so I’ll be blogging more about it as we go along. But I thought I’d start us off with a little taste of it here. 🙂