5. IT'S THE PORTFOLIO, STUPID
is the overwhelmingly dominant contributor to total return.
--Gary Brinson, Brian Singer and Gilbert Beebower
Most investors concentrate on trying to choose the best stock and pick the perfect moment to buy or sell. It's a waste. What really matters to your long-term returns is asset allocation--that is, how you split up your portfolio.
Since researchers dropped this bombshell 20 years ago, experts have debated the size of the asset-allocation factor. Some say it accounts for 40% of the variation in investors' returns; others (like the original researchers) say 90%. But no one refutes that it's major. For help getting the best mix for your goals and risk tolerance, see the Asset Allocator tool.
6. AVERAGE IS THE NEW BEST
The best way to own common stocks is through an index fund.
Here's the logic behind index funds, which aim simply to match the return of a market index: The average fund in any market will always earn that market's return (because in aggregate investors are the market) minus expenses. Since index funds match the market but have much smaller expenses than other funds, they will always beat the average fund in the long run. It's hard to argue with the math, and history bears it out (see the performance stat at right). Besides, if the Greatest Investor of Our Time believes that index funds are superior for most investors, shouldn't you?
7. PRACTICE PATIENCE
It never was my thinking that made the big money for me. It was always my sitting. Got that? My sitting tight!
This blunt warning was issued in Lefevre's 1923 fictional memoir, reportedly based on legendary trader Jesse Livermore and treated by many financial advisers like the Bible. Some 77 years later, behavioral finance professors Terrance Odean and Brad Barber's research into transactions by some 66,000 households between 1991 and 1996 found that those who traded least earned seven percentage points a year more than the most frequent traders. Moral: Once you arrange your assets into your ideal allocation, don't tinker. Rebalance once a year to keep your mix on track, but otherwise, listen to Livermore and sit tight.
8. DON'T TIME THE MARKET
The real key to making money in stocks is not to get scared out of them.
It would be so nice, wouldn't it, to sell before every market downdraft and then get back in just as the good times roll again. But it's too hard to pull off. Nobody knows when markets will turn (see Rule No. 1). And when they do, they tend to move in quick bursts. By the time you realize an advance has begun, most of it's over. Miss that initial stretch and you'll miss out on most of the gains. The lesson: The surest way to investing success is to buy, then stick to your guns.
9. BE A CHEAPSKATE
Performance comes and goes, but costs roll on forever.
If you choose a fund that eats up 1.5% a year in expenses over one that costs 1% (let alone the 0.2% that index funds may charge), your fund's return will have to beat the other's by half a point a year just for you to come out even. Past returns are no guarantee of the future, but today's low-cost funds are likely to stay low cost. Buying them is the only sure way of giving yourself a leg up.
10. DON'T FOLLOW THE CROWD
Fashion is made to become unfashionable.
Or, as the legendary financier Sir James Goldsmith has said, "If you see a bandwagon, it's too late."
In the late 1990s, there was no more fashionable bandwagon for investors than Firsthand Technology Value fund. It returned 23.7% in 1998, but investors really piled into it after it rocketed an incredible 190.4% in 1999. But by then, the bust of 2000 was about to unfold, and Firsthand was soon to become as passé as plaid trousers. The result was a chilling example of the perils of following the herd: While the fund posted a respectable 16% annualized gain over the four years through 2001, the average shareholder in the fund actually lost more than 31.6% a year.