There are many ways to make money in the financial markets, but if this was such an easy endeavor, then everybody would be trading while drinking umbrella drinks on their private islands. I mean with all the bright blinking lights, talking baby day traders, and software bells and whistles, how difficult could it actually be?

Unfortunately, financial markets have a way of driving grown men (and women) to tears, usually when confidence is at or near a peak. The best investors leave their emotions at the door and follow a systematic disciplined process. Investing can be a meat grinder, but the good news is one does not need to have a 90% success rate to make it lucrative. Take it from Peter Lynch, who averaged a +29% return per year while managing the Magellan Fund at Fidelity Investments from 1977-1990. “If you’re terrific in this business you’re right six times out of 10,” says Lynch.

Sweating Way to Success

If investing is so tough, then what is the recipe for investment success? As the saying goes, money management requires 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Or as strategist and long-time investor Don Hays notes, “You are only right on your stock purchases and sales when you are sweating.” Buying what’s working and selling what’s not, doesn’t require a lot of thinking or sweating (see Riding the Wave), just basic pattern recognition. Universally loved stocks may enjoy the inertia of upward momentum, but when the music stops for the Wall Street darlings, investors rarely can hit the escape button fast enough. Cutting corners and taking short-cuts may work in the short-run, but usually ends badly.

[drizzle]Real profits are made through unique insights that have not been fully discovered by market participants, or in other words, distancing oneself from the herd. Typically this means investing in reasonably priced companies with significant growth prospects, or cheap out-of-favor investments. Like dieting, this is easy to understand, but difficult to execute. Pulling the trigger on unanimously hated investments or purchasing seemingly expensive growth stocks requires a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Eating doughnuts won’t generate the conviction necessary to justify the valuation and excess expected return for analyzed securities.

Times Have Changed

Investing in stocks is difficult enough with equity fund flows hemorrhaging out of investor accounts like the asset class is going out of style. Stocks’ popularity haven’t been helped by the heightened volatility, as evidenced by the multi-year trend in the schizophrenic  volatility index (VIX) –  escalated by the international geopolitics and presidential elections. Globalization, which has been accelerated by technology, has only increased correlations between domestic market and international markets. In decades past,  concerns over economic activity in Iceland, Dubai, and Greece may not even make the back pages of The Wall Street Journal. Today, news travels at the speed of a “Tweet” and eventually results in a sprawling front page headline.

The equity investing game may be more difficult today, but investing for retirement has never been more important. Stuffing money under the mattress in Treasuries, money market accounts, CDs, or other conservative investments may feel good in the short run, but will likely not cover inflation associated with rising fuel, food, healthcare, and leisure costs. Regardless of your investment strategy, if your goal is to earn excess returns, you may want to check the moistness of your armpits – successful long-term investing requires a lot of sweat.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

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