MONEY

4 lessons from the financial crisis

If you can learn from the mistakes of others, now is a great time to be an investor.

Question: I’m inexperienced when it comes to investing, but I want to build a more secure financial future. What tips or suggestions do you have for a young investor like me? —Caleb Bond, Denver

Answer: It’s a great time to be starting out as an investor. Yes, I know that might sound odd, given that the market and the economy are in shambles. But the fact that people are so fearful and the outlook is so uncertain can also have its advantages.

For one thing, much of the excess has been wrung out of stock prices over the past year or so. And while this hardly insures a quick rebound, the money you invest today is much more likely to earn a higher return than if you had invested before the meltdown.

Even more important, though, is that you now have a better sense of the real risks of investing. People who gain their investing experience during bull markets can easily be lulled into a false sense of security. They know that severe downturn occur and maybe could occur again, but the possibility of one happening to them seems remote.

Today, however, all you’ve got to do is look around you to see that risk is real, it can be devastating and it must be respected.

That said, there’s also the danger that someone surveying today’s scene might take away the wrong lessons. Already, some people are concluding that stocks, or financial assets in general, are just too risky. When it comes to important goals like retirement, they say, the experience of the last year or so shows you should stick to the most secure investments, FDIC-insured CDs and the like.

But that’s an overreaction. Risk is a natural part of investing, a part of life, for that matter. Eliminate it and you eliminate opportunity. The key is to understand how much risk you’re taking and manage it.

With that in mind, here are four lessons I think beginning investors should take from the financial crisis and apply to their investing decisions now and in the years ahead. Come to think of it, I think experienced investors should consider them as well.

Financial success isn’t just about investing.

We kind of lost sight of this fact because returns on financial assets had been so good from the early 1980s through the late ‘90s. And even after the dot-com bust we had another five-year bull run in stocks, not to mention heady gains in the real estate market. It became easy to assume that we could achieve financial goals like a secure retirement with a minimum of savings because we could count on the compounding effect of years of high returns.

That was always an unsound strategy, but it’s only now becoming clear how flawed. In fact, as a study by Putnam investments showed a couple of years ago, saving is just as important for building wealth, if not more so. We can’t be sure of the size of the investment gains we’ll earn, and we don’t have nearly as much control over them as we used to think. But we have much more control over how much we save.

And by saving more, we gain two big advantages: we don’t have to invest as aggressively to build a retirement nest egg or reach other financial goals; and, by socking more money away, we’ll have more of a cushion in the event of setbacks in the market.

Simplicity is better than complexity.

If I could ban two words from the vocabulary of investors, it would be these: “sophisticated investing.” I think more harm has been done by investors trying to boost their returns by creating arcane investing strategies or buying complicated investments they don’t understand than all the investment con men and rip-off artists combined.

I don’t want to sound like a Luddite. I’m all for using tools, calculators and software to help you create a retirement plan and an investing strategy. But you’ve also got to maintain a healthy sense of skepticism about how much fancy algorithms and intricate computer simulations can do.

Fact is, the more complicated your investing strategy is, the more things there are that can go wrong, and the harder it will be for you to monitor and maintain it. A simple mix of stock and bond mutual funds may not be the sexiest strategy around. But if you use good common sense in putting that mix together – i.e., you diversify broadly as we recommend in our Asset Allocator tool – it will serve you well over the long term.

Allow for the possibility you may be wrong.

One of the most notable features of the real estate bubble was how sure people felt that prices would continue to go up, up, up. At the peak of the housing mania, I remember getting emails from firms that were inducing individuals to open self-directed IRA accounts so that they could then invest their IRA money in real estate. I wrote a column at the time suggesting that this might be a sign that the real estate market was getting frothy and warning people about staking their retirement on the housing market.

I got a lot of feedback on that column, alas, most of it from people who wanted to know how they could get in touch with those firms that could help them get rental houses into their IRAs. And although I and others pointed out that house prices had gone down in the past and stayed down for quite a while after big run-ups, no one seemed to believe that it could happen again.

Which is why it’s always important when you’re investing to give yourself a reality check. Are your assumptions realistic? Is there something you’re overlooking? Could you be wrong? What would the fallout be if you are? And, perhaps most important, are you interested in this investment because it fits in with your overall strategy or because it’s the investment everyone is talking about?

Don’t get too euphoric during upswings or depressed during downturns.

When things are going well and the economy and the markets are on a roll, it’s easy to let the excitement cloud your judgment. After all, everywhere you look – the double-digit gains in the fund listings, the upbeat news in the newspaper’s business section, the cheerful banter on cable TV financial shows – you get positive reinforcement. You almost can’t help but believe that the good times will continue to roll.

So you begin to boost the percentage of stocks in your portfolio and put more money than you should into hot investments that now seem like good bets, such as emerging market stocks. In other words, you begin taking on more risk, although, you probably don’t see it that way. How can investing be risky when it seems the market only goes up?

This process kicks into reverse, of course, when the markets and economy change course and begin falling apart. Then the prevailing gloom and doom dominates your thinking. Everywhere you look – the double-digit losses in the fund listings, the downbeat news in the business section, the somber mood and dire pronouncements on the cable TV financial shows – you get negative reinforcement.

You become convinced that the hard times will get even harder. So you sell out of stocks and move into safe-haven investments you sneered at during boom times – bond funds, money-market funds, stable-value funds, even CDs. And you no doubt see this as a move to reduce risk. After all, aren’t you safer getting out of the market when it only seems to keep going down?

But there’s a risk here too: you may be selling at the worst time and positioning yourself to miss the recovery when it occurs.

These feelings and reactions are natural. We’re human. But it’s no news flash that markets and economies move in cycles. That we go through periods of excess on both the upside and downside. We’ve gone through such episodes before and we will again. So ideally you want to set a strategy that factors in such fluctuations, and then avoid the urge to abandon your strategy when your emotions are screaming you to do so.

I can’t guarantee that steering clear of the euphoria that leads to aggressive investing at market peaks and avoiding the despair that causes you to be too conservative after the market falls apart will assure you’ll earn the highest returns or sidestep big losses. But by doing so, you’ll probably be less vulnerable heading into downturns, and better positioned to take advantage of the upswing when it occurs.

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