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How to Invest

Eggs in a basket

Photo courtesy of sraskie

Occasionally, someone will ask me a question in the following different ways: “Did you see what the market did today?” or “How did the market do today?” To be honest, I’d love to use the line that Charley Ellis has used from the movie Gone with the Wind; “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Professionally, my response is more in line with “I couldn’t tell you.” or “I don’t follow the market really.”

The response is not meant to be rude or abrupt, but more to simply say that for most investors (myself included); they shouldn’t be worried about what the market is doing on a day to day basis. This is especially true for the Dow Jones Industrial Average. A price weighted index of 30 stocks is hardly representative of the market, yet it’s what most people think and refer to as “the market” when they ask the questions above or read the news.

The other reason is when you think of it, do we really have control over the market? In other words, what’s the sense in worrying about something that’s beyond our control? Instead, we can focus on what we can control. One of those is expenses. The other is diversification. The good news is that both are easy to control and easy to implement.

As the title says, this is how most individuals can and should invest. Leave worrying about market fluctuations to individuals who think they can beat the market, but very rarely do consistently.

How to control expenses

Generally, one of the best ways to control expenses is to find passively managed funds such as index funds. Index funds simply buy the market basket of securities and since they represent a market index (such as the S&P 500, the bond market, real estate market, etc.) they generally don’t have a manager actively buying and selling securities in order to beat the market. The more a manager actively trades, the more expenses increase – and lower investors’ returns. To quote Dr. Burton Malkiel, Princeton professor and author of the seminal book on investing A Random Walk Down Wall Street, “You get what you don’t pay for.”

Not all index funds are created equal. This is something I wrote about in the past. Investors should look for index funds that are no-load (do not pay the broker an up-front commission) and with expense ratios of .5% (1/2 of 1%) or less. Two companies that offer very inexpensive index fund options are Vanguard and Fidelity. Once you’ve selected which company you’re going to use it’s now time the next step.

How to diversify

When it comes to diversification, investors should first consider which assets classes they will select to invest and diversify into. Asset allocation and diversification are different. Asset allocation means selection from asset classes such as stocks, bonds, REITs, commodities, etc. Diversification means spreading your investment selection among a particular asset class. Once an investor has picked their asset classes the choice of funds from the above two providers becomes easy.

An investor can have excellent asset allocation and diversification with only a few funds in their portfolio. For example, an investor could choose a total stock market index fund, total bond market index fund, an international index fund and a REIT index fund and arguably never have to look at it again except to re-balance occasionally. The weights of the funds (percent of the portfolio dedicated to each fund) needs to be determine by the investor and may solicit the help of a competent financial planner. Financial planning professionals can assist the client with understanding their appetite for risk, goals, time horizon, and tax implications of their investments.

It’s been said that diversification is the only free lunch in investing. That is, according to Modern Portfolio Theory investors can combine individually risky assets while lowering the overall risk in the portfolio.

I’d love to tell you that investing is rocket surgery, but it really isn’t. The industry can make it complicated and I would argue that the more complicated the less benefit it is to investors. Investors should focus on what they can control; expenses and diversification, and get competent professional advice when necessary.

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