The predominant investment strategy is to invest in index funds which means that you own an index like the S&P 500, which is a basket of the 500 biggest businesses traded in the U.S. Owning part of the 500 best businesses in the U.S. is not a bad thing but there are a few things you should know before allocating your hard-earned money to index funds.
Get The Full Warren Buffett Series in PDF
Get the entire 10-part series on Warren Buffett in PDF. Save it to your desktop, read it on your tablet, or email to your colleagues
How To Properly Invest In Index Funds - Dollar Cost Averaging
1) Investing in index funds is extremely risky
You probably read that many, even Warren Buffett says that investing in index funds is the best way to invest. However, there are many catches that go along that statement. The first thing many forget to talk about is the risk of investing in index funds. The S&P 500 has dropped 49% in 2001 and 57% in 2009. Such huge drops are extremely indicative of what can happen. And, it will certainly happen again sometimes in the future.
In both cases the S&P 500 recovered but there is absolutely no guarantee that it will do so after the next drop. For example, after the 1920s bull market, it took the S&P 500 25 years to return to the previous level.
There are also many periods of more than 10 years where stock market returns haven’t really been positive. From 2000 to 2013, from 1968 to 1982, just to give a few examples. If we adjust the returns for inflation, the periods where the actual return is zero are even longer; 2000 to 2016, 1966 to 1994 and what is also staggering is that from 1927 to 1982, inflation adjusted stock market returns have been negative.
There is only one way to properly invest in index funds and it is a good strategy if you can stick to it for your whole life. Only if you dollar cost average your investments into index funds, you will do fine over the very long term. Dollar cost averaging means that you invest a fixed amount every month no matter what is going on in the market. This way you invest when things go well but also when things don’t go that well, which is the key. If you look back to the above chart, those who invested in 1931, 1940, 1982, 2009 have reaped the best investing returns. As it is impossible to time the market, dollar cost averaging is the only way to properly invest in index funds. However, few have the discipline to do so over the long term.
A dollar cost averaging strategy works only if you keep investing through thin. This means that it is essential to invest when there is blood in the streets. Blood in the streets means that most others are selling in panic of what might happen next and nobody wants any kind of relation with stocks. A similar situation happened in 2001 and 2009. Those who have been constantly investing in stocks during the last 10 or 20 years, month after month, did well. However, if you stop investing during a recession because you prefer to safe a bit of cash in case you get fired, then index investing should be completely avoided because extremely risky and will lead to bad returns. As simple as a dollar cost averaging strategy might solve the issue.
Where did the 5.4% yearly difference go? Well, it was eaten up by fees and by the fact that most invest in stocks at the wrong time and usually sell at the wrong time too. Most investors buy high and sell low.
Therefore, it is extremely important to understand that investing in index funds works only if you stick to such an investment strategy for 40 years and add money constantly, month per month and reinvest the dividends without exception. The sad part is that, very few manage to apply such a strategy through life and that is something you should really see whether you can do. If you can’t invest when the stock market is down, or even worse, have to pull your funds out of the stock market when there is a crash, index investing certainly isn’t for you.
2) Dividends are extremely low
As shown in figure 3, inflation adjusted stock market returns aren’t that stellar. Over the last 90 years those have been just shy of 2% per year. The biggest benefit from investing in the stock market in the last 90 years has come from dividends. The problem is that those dividends are at historical lows now.
The low dividends and high current market valuations tell us that we really can’t expect high future returns from the stock market. If you are happy with a 4% return over the very long term, I am talking here 40 years, then it is ok. If the 4% and the 50%, perhaps 70% downturn risk, don’t fit your investment and retirement goals, then you should avoid index investing. There are better investment strategies that give you higher dividends with perhaps even less risk.
Use Vanguard funds, not ETFs