Friday, February 27, 2009

Five Stupid Things Smart People Are Doing With Their Investments

Five Stupid Things Smart People Are Doing With Their Investments

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. © 2009

The collapse of the financial markets has sparked terror for many investors. It’s hard to watch your regular 401-k contributions invested in solid mutual funds, and then vanish each month. If you are laid off, the fear of depleting your savings is gut-wrenching. If you are retired, unless you have a bond ladder, you may be thinking of going back to work. If you were planning to retire soon you may be postponing those plans. None of these options are very desirable.

People being people, our financial decisions are often based on how we feel rather than a rational process. Often these times lead people to take drastic action. They hope to reclaim all of the money they have lost in one brilliant financial move. The problem is that such approaches to investing are blatantly stupid, and I have seen the wreckage caused in the past when clients decided to ‘go for broke.’ This is the Gamblers Last Gambit: one last grasp to win all the losses back in one grand stroke. Here are five ways I’ve seen this happen with investors:

1. In 2002, a client who had lost a sizable portion of his money on the dot-com bust, sold every stock he had left and put it in cash. Vowing never to invest in the stock market again, he stayed on the sideline in 2003, when the market increased 30%, and missed the chance to have his portfolio recover.
2. Just recently a woman left her stockbroker who had her over-exposed to financial stocks which lost 80% of their value. Then she took the rest of her money and decided to buy puts and calls herself to make up her losses. In less than 6 months, she’s lost most of what she had left.
3. Another couple last year decided to sell their Treasury bonds last year, because they had appreciated so much. They planned to hold on to the cash and buy the bonds back when interest rates went back up. Meanwhile they have been earning less than 1%, and interest rates continue to drop and they can’t afford to buy their bonds back.
4. Then there’s the fellow who withdrew all his IRA savings and bought lottery tickets so he could retire early. (OK, he had brain cancer, so that’s an excuse).
5. Finally, there was a very smart financial advisor I knew in the 1990’s. He became a fan of the doom’s-day prophet of the time, and convinced his clients to sell all their assets and buy gold. He also did this with all his investments. (Not a good move in the ‘90’s!)

Now financial gurus are touting gold, or risky investment strategies, playing on investor’s fears to induce them to pay them for their secrets. Every stockbroker wants people to sell their Treasuries and let them invest the money = “Give me your money and I’ll make you rich!”.

Your situation is unique. We understand the broad context of your life situation and tailor your investments accordingly. It is futile to try to ‘hit a home run’ in this economic environment.

It takes patience. That’s why stocks are called long-term investments. For younger clients this is the best opportunity for you to guarantee your retirement. With stocks so low, continuing to dollar-cost-average now is a once in a life-time chance. For retirees with bond ladders, you have a 15-20 year investment horizon if you just wait for the economy to rebound. Taking sudden action now is folly.

The best thing to do is to stop listening to financial news on TV, reading the ‘ain’t it awful headlines’ and always looking for a guru to tell you the key to financial success. If anyone knew that, which there isn’t, they wouldn’t tell you because if everyone did it, their strategy wouldn’t work anymore. Face it: they make money selling newsletters to incite greed and fear. If you want to get rich quick, start your own newsletter!

“Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.”

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