26th March 2008
14 Timeless Money Rules
Carla Fried from America's Money Magazine recently summarised some sound advice from the smartest investors (and others) who have ever lived. We thought it was an excellent opportunity to revisit these timeless investment fundamentals.
1. Be humble
When you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it - this is knowledge. Confucius
Investing is a big bet on an unknowable future. The mark of wisdom is accepting just how unknowable it is. Granted, that's not easy. Our brains are built to think the future will be like the near past. And we're too ready to act on the predictions of pundits, who are no more clued in than we are about what lies ahead. Being humble in the face of uncertainty keeps you from costly mistakes. You won't jump on yesterday's bandwagon. And before you invest, you'll be more likely to ask a key question: "What if I'm wrong?"
2. Take calculated risks
He that is overcautious will accomplish little.
Friedrich von Schiller
The returns you get are proportionate to the risk you take. This is a fundamental law of the markets. It's why term deposits typically pay more than at call accounts and why you're disappointed if your emerging markets fund does no better than its stodgy blue-chip stablemate. History unequivocally supports this "no free lunch" principle. Going back to 1926, stocks (high risk) have paid more than fixed interest investments (medium risk), which in turn have beaten low-risk cash. Among many, many other things, this law suggests:
- To earn returns high enough to build true wealth, you have to put some of your money in risky assets like stocks - the only investment to handily beat inflation over time.
- If a financial salesperson tries to tell you his product offers a high return with no risk, get that claim in writing. Then send it and his business card to ASIC.
3. Have an emergency fund
For age and want, save while you may; no morning sun lasts a whole day. Benjamin Franklin
The first step in constructing any serious financial plan is to create an emergency cash fund - ideally, three to six months' living expenses - stashed in a low-cost ultra safe bank account or money-market fund. Without this financial cushion, any unexpected expense can derail your long-term plans. These days, happily, that emergency stash won't just sit idle, and is likely to earn a good rate of return due to competition for deposits.
4. Mix it up - diversify!
It is the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow and not to venture all his eggs in one basket. Miguel de Cervantes.
Asset allocation . . . is the overwhelmingly dominant contributor to total return. Gary Brinson, Brian Singer and Gilbert Beebower
Nothing can break the law of risk and reward, but a diversified portfolio can bend it. When you spread your money properly among different asset types, a rise in some will offset a fall in others, muting your overall risk without a commensurate drop in return. It's the closest thing to a free lunch there is in investing. To make the alchemy work, you must load up on assets whose up and down cycles don't run in sync: stocks (domestic and foreign, as well as large-company and small), bonds and fixed interest investments (of varying maturities), cash, and real estate.
Most investors concentrate on trying to choose the best asset 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 investment 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.
5. Practice patience - Don't time the market
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, behavioural 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.
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 the asset or investment, then stick to your guns.
6. Be a cheapskate
Performance comes and goes, but costs roll on forever. Jack Bogle
If you choose a fund that eats up 1.5% a year in expenses over one that costs 1%, your fund's return will have to beat the others 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.
7. Don't follow the crowd
Fashion is made to become unfashionable. Coco Chanel
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 US 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 passe 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.
8. Keep perspective
There is nothing new in the world except the history
you do not know. Harry Truman
When the Dow sheds 300 points in a day, it's natural to feel doomed. And when the market surges, it's easy to be convinced that stocks have entered "a new paradigm," to echo a bubble-era phrase. Don't delude yourself. As Sir John Templeton notes, "The four most expensive words in the English language are, `This time it's different.'"
To keep your perspective, remember:
- In every bull market since 1970, stocks have dropped by 10% or more at least once. Average time to get back to even: 107 days.
- Over time, markets tend to stick close to their long-term trends, called "regression to the mean." Manias and panics never last.
9. Just do it
It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.
Financial planning is an unnatural act. The brain is wired to make us undervalue long-term goals and exaggerate the cost of short-term sacrifice. Yet studies show that people who do even a little retirement planning had twice the savings of those who did almost none. Heed the words attributed to Mrs. Roosevelt by doing the following:
- Set concrete, attainable goals. "I'll pay an extra $100 a month on my credit card" is more likely to succeed than "I'm going to get my act together."
- Then commit. Tell someone your plan and agree to a penalty - you'll do your spouse's chores for a month if you haven't saved $10,000 extra by June.
10. Borrow responsibly
As life closes in on someone who has borrowed far too much money on the strength of far too little income, there are no fire escapes. John Kenneth Galbraith
Face this truth: If you let them, some lenders are only too willing to advance you more than is good for your family. Banks and credit-card issuers don't care if your monthly payment makes it impossible for you to sock away money in your super fund. You need to set your own rules, including:
- No credit-card debt. Period. It's never okay to pay 15% to borrow for consumption.
- Borrow only to buy assets that appreciate. A home, yes. Education, sure. A vacation, a fancy dinner or even a 50-inch flat-screen TV? No way.
11. Talk to your spouse
In every house of marriage there's room for an interpreter. Stanley Kunitz
Your most important financial partner isn't your broker or accountant. It's your spouse - you know the one who probably owns half of all you do and whose fate is inextricably linked with yours. But research shows that spouses often don't agree on even such basic info as their income and savings. Wake-up call: To make smart decisions, you need to talk, and if you're like most couples, to do a better job at it.
- Men: Don't assume she doesn't care about this stuff. She does. But you need to lay off the jargon and speak English.
- Women: Don't just leave it all to him. At a minimum, know where the key papers are and how your money is invested.
- Both: Focus on goals, not on being right. It's not a contest.
12. Exit gracefully - have a Will!
Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die
having left undone. Pablo Picasso
Despite the words he reportedly uttered, Picasso was willing to die without planning his estate. It took years for his heirs to reach a settlement with French authorities. Although you may not have masterpieces to bequeath, you have no excuse not to take elementary steps to make life easier on those you'd leave behind. Covering the basics shouldn't cost more than $1,500. To find a lawyer, ask friends and colleagues for recommendations or get referrals.
13. Give wisely
The time is always right to do the right thing.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Granted, Dr. King did not have money on his mind when he spoke these words. But they also ring true in your financial life, since giving back is always the right thing. Still, there are more right and less right ways to do it.
- Look beyond the headlines. It's fine to give money to disasters like the tsunami, but don't forget about smaller charities that go wanting.
- Don't give over the phone. Telemarketers often take a cut of 50% or more.
- Focus. Identify a cause that really speaks to you. Then devote most of your energy and charitable dollars to the organisations that best support it.
14. Keep money in its place
A wise man should have money in his head,
but not in his heart. Jonathan Swift
People who say they value money highly report that they are less happy in life than those who care more about love and friends. Enough said.
Copyright 2007 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.