MONEY investing strategy

The Dark Secret Behind Most Popular Investing Strategies

money splitting into different directions
C.J. Burton—Corbis

Investing gurus scrap their advice all the time.

Like countless others, I read Benjamin Graham’s book The Intelligent Investor when I was young. It totally changed how I looked at investing.

Graham’s book was more than theory. He gave directions — actual formulas — investors could use to find cheap stocks. The formulas were simple and they made sense. This appealed to me, as I had no idea what I was doing.

But something became clear once I started putting his formulas to use. None of them worked.

Graham advocated purchasing stocks trading for less than their net working assets — basically cash in the bank minus all debts. This sounded great, but no stocks actually trade that cheaply anymore — other than, say, a Chinese pharmaceutical company accused of accounting fraud, or a shell company run out of a garage in Toledo. No thanks.

One of Graham’s criteria suggested that defensive investors should avoid stocks trading for more than 1.5 times book value. Following this rule in recent years would have led an investor to own almost nothing but banks and insurance stocks. In no world is this possibly OK.

The Intelligent Investor is one of the greatest investing books of all time. But I don’t know a single person who has invested successfully implementing Graham’s formulas exactly as they’re printed. The book is chock-full of wisdom — more than any other investment book ever published. But as a how-to guide, success is elusive.

This bothered me for years. Then, a year ago, I had lunch with Wall Street journalist Jason Zweig, who explained what was happening.

Graham was as practical as he was brilliant. This is probably because in addition to being an academic he was an actual money manager, running what we’d now call a hedge fund. He had no desire to stick with antiquated strategies that other investors had caught on to and become too competitive, rendering them less effective.

“In each revised edition of The Intelligent Investor,” Zweig once wrote, “Graham discarded the formulas he presented in the previous edition and replaced them with new ones, declaring, in a sense, ‘that those do not work any more, or they do not work as well as they used to; these are the formulas that seem to work better now.”

The most recent edition of The Intelligent Investor was published 42 years ago. Who knows what Graham’s strategies would look like today if he were alive to update them?

The cornerstones of successful investing are timeless. Patience, contrarian thinking, and tax efficiency will be as important 50 years from now as they were 50 years ago.

But among specific investing strategies, things change.

Every strategy to outperform the market must be based on the logic of, “The market disagrees with me today, but it will agree with me in the future, and when it does share prices will rise and I’ll profit.” But what investors believe today, and what they’re likely to believe tomorrow, changes. Since the prevalence of data, social norms, and company disclosures change over time, what worked in one era might not work in another. As an investor, you have to adapt.

Just before his death in 1976, Graham was asked whether detailed analysis of individual stocks — the kind of stuff he became famous for — was still a strategy he believed in. He answered:

In general, no. I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook “Graham and Dodd” was first published; but the situation has changed a great deal since then.

What he believed, he continued, was buying a portfolio of stocks based on a few criteria — maybe low P/E ratios, or high dividend yields. But what matters — and what so many overlook when studying Graham — was that he changed his mind. He adapted.

In his great book Investing, Robert Hagstrom compares financial markets to biological evolution. There’s a tendency to think of markets as something that are established and rigid — a set of numbers that get jumbled around. But they’re not. Markets evolve over time. Successful strategies are selected, while those that are no longer effective — usually because investors gain access to better information than they had before — get pushed out.

Hagstrom looked at the last 100 years, and found that four popular investing strategies have come and gone.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, the discount-to-hard-book-value strategy … was dominant. After World War II and into the 1950s, the second major strategy that dominated finance was the dividend model … By the 1960s … investors exchanged stocks paying high dividends for companies expected to grow earnings. By the 1980s a fourth strategy took over. Investors began to favor cash-flow models over earnings models. Today … it appears that a fifth strategy is emerging: cash return on invested capital.”

If you don’t know that markets have evolved and some strategies are no longer valid, you’ll end up making terrible decisions.

“If you are still picking stocks using a discount-to-hard-book-value model or relying on dividend models to tell you when the stock market is over or under-valued, it is unlikely you have enjoyed even average investment returns,” Hagstrom writes. There is no reason to expect this strategy will lead to outperformance because so few investors pay attention to it anymore. Even if you find stocks trading at a discount to book value, there’s no reason to believe that anyone else will agree with you … later.

So many investors today put tremendous faith in investing metrics showing, say, that this stock is overvalued, or that the overall market is undervalued. They back it up with a century worth of historic data, showing how well the metric has worked in the past.

I often wonder: Have things changed? Have so many people caught onto a popular metric that they’re less effective than they were in the past? Should we, like Graham, be constantly tinkering with our metrics, discarding what’s unlikely to work anymore?

The S&P 500 did not include financial stocks until 1976; today, financials make up 16% of the index. Technology stocks were virtually nonexistent 50 years ago. Today, they’re almost one-fifth of the index. Accounting rules have changed over time. So have disclosures, auditing, and market liquidity. 401(k)s and IRAs — which hold trillions of dollars — didn’t exist until 40 years ago. Comparing today’s market to the past isn’t apples to apples.

There’s a mocking statement that “it’s different this time” are the four most costly words in investing. And sure, investors fall for some of the same traps again and again. But for many things, it’s always different this time. Things change. So should you.

MONEY Warren Buffett

The One Thing Warren Buffett is Wrong About

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
CNBC—NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Buffett's personal bias seems to be interfering with his judgment in food stocks.

Warren Buffett cannonballed through the food industry once again this past week, orchestrating a merger of Heinz and Kraft Foods KRAFT FOODS GROUP INC. KRFT 4.12% to create the world’s third-largest food company.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate and partner 3G Capital, a Brazilian investment firm, will pay a special dividend to Kraft shareholders worth $10 billion, and Kraft shareholders will own 49% of the new company while Heinz, which was acquired by Buffett and 3G Capital in 2013, will hold 51%.

This is far from Buffett’s first foray into the food business, but the deal seems questionable at a time when more Americans are shunning the packaged processed foods that Kraft is known for such as Velveeta and Lunchables, and its sales have been flat in recent years. Still, Kraft is a typical Buffett target with its portfolio of well-known brands and easy-to-understand business model. Berkshire is also a major holder of Coca-Cola COCA-COLA COMPANY KO 0.32% , and owns Dairy Queen, after acquiring it in 1997.

Buffett is a big personal fan of these brands, and readily admits that he eats “like a six-year old.” He has said he’s a regular consumer of Heinz ketchup, and Dairy Queen. He drinks at least five Cokes a day, regularly munches on Potato Stix, and told Fortune he had a bowl of chocolate chip ice cream for breakfast the day of the interview. Perhaps the octogenarian’s tastes may be clouding his judgement when it comes to his investments in the food world.

Coca-Cola COCA-COLA COMPANY KO 0.32% , for example, was one of the best performing stocks of the 20th century, but as soda consumption has fallen in the last decade, the stock has languished in recent years. Over the last five years, it’s returned 44%, against the S&P 500’s 74%, while in the last two years Coke is down 1%, compared to a 32% gain for the broad-market index. As long as people are turning away from soda, Coke’s prospects look poor.

In 1997, Buffett bought Dairy Queen for $585 million. At the time, it had 6,200 restaurants under its banner. Nearly 20 years later in 2014, it has only grown to about 6,500. As a minor subsidiary, Berkshire doesn’t break down Dairy Queen’s financial performance, but its average sales per store was just $659,000 in 2013, below most major fast-food competitors. Growth in individual stores has also significantly trailed the industry. In that time, McDonald’s, for example, has grown from about 23,000 restaurants worldwide to over 35,000. Fast casual chains have boomed as Chipotle Mexican Grill went from a handful of stores in 1997 to a valuation north of $20 billion today. Buffett may have gotten a good price for Dairy Queen, but the business is past its prime.

Heinz has only been under Buffett’s auspices for less than two years, but sales have been falling recently.

Like the recent Duracell deal, Kraft is yet another low-growth company with a strong brand. 3G has shown a knack with such businesses before, applying its playbook of cost-cutting and international expansion to ramp up profits. It worked with Anheuser Busch-InBev, and Heinz managed to grow profits last year. The group is now trying to pull the same trick with Restaurant Brands International, the result of the merger of Burger King and Tim Horton’s.

That may be the saving grace in the deal for Kraft, but the $10 billion dividend still seems like a generous gift for a company with flat sales that was valued at $35 billion before the deal was announced. If 3G can wring more profits out of Kraft, then perhaps the deal will pay off, but the business itself — with its products losing shelf space to organic competitors — looks weak. For a master of the deal like Buffett, the merger may pay off, but a Heinz-Kraft stock looks unappetizing for the average investor.

MONEY Financial Planning

Would You Trust Your Retirement to a Machine?

150326_ADV_ROBOADVISOR01
Peter Yang

New websites called robo-advisers are promising smarter investment advice at a much lower cost. But are you really ready to give up the human touch?

Betterment looks like a startup right out of tech disrupter central casting. Its office, in an airy loft space, features a beer tap and Ping-Pong table. The founder, Jon Stein, favors open-necked shirts at work, not a suit and a tie. He is 35 years old.

But Betterment isn’t in Silicon Valley, and it’s not selling chat apps, cat videos, or cheap car rides. It’s in Manhattan and trying to make a splash in the very serious business of investment advice. Stein has a Wall Street résumé: He’s a former banking consultant and a chartered financial analyst. He also thinks that Wall Street charges way too much and that Internet-based companies can fundamentally change the way you invest for your retirement. “We’ve taken the friction out of the process. We’ve made [advice] accessible to everyone. That is the future,” says Stein, with the modesty you’d expect from a tech CEO.

What Stein calls “friction” other advisers call a good business. Advice can be expensive. You may pay about 5% off the top for a commission-based adviser who puts you in mutual funds. Or you might pay an annual fee—1% of assets is typical—but many advisers and planners often won’t bother with clients who don’t have a lot to invest. “It’s almost like there were two options: walking, or driving a Mercedes,” says Michael Kitces of Pinnacle Advisory Group.

Betterment and at least a dozen competitors, including Wealthfront and FutureAdvisor, think web tools and computer models can deliver advice much more cheaply. Known (sometimes pejoratively) as robo-advisers, they pick investments for you and monitor your portfolio. Many do it for 0.15% to 0.5% of assets a year and welcome tiny balances.

“Many financial advisers are going to get drummed out of the business,” says adviser Ric Edelman, a well-known industry figure. That’s a bold forecast: Robos manage $19 billion, a relative sliver. Charles Schwab alone runs $2.5 trillion.

Private venture capital investors are racing in—Betterment recently got a shot of $60 million. Using Betterment’s implied value as a yardstick, VCs think a robo may be worth about $30 for every $100 in client assets, vs. $3 per $100 for some traditional advisers. Robos “see themselves becoming the next Schwab,” says Grant Easterbrook, author of an industry report for the research firm Corporate Insight. “Based on the money they’ve gotten, the VCs believe them.”

A close look at what most robos do reveals a fairly cookie-cutter, if common-sense, investment approach—one many MONEY readers would feel comfortable doing themselves. And there are important things the services haven’t yet figured out how to do well.

Still, this could start to finally open up advice to a bigger chunk of middle-class investors, not just the wealthy. Even if robos aren’t for you now, you may soon benefit from the way they’re changing the business. Other sites, such as LearnVest and Personal Capital, are using technology to connect you to a human adviser or planner you just never happen to meet in person. Established players like Vanguard and, yes, the current Schwab are responding with their own low-cost offerings. (Schwab’s headline price: free.) The existence of the robo option puts pressure on everyone’s prices.

In other words, you don’t need to buy the Mercedes. “Now there are Kias. There are Fords,” says Kitces. “There are a lot more choices.” Here’s how those choices stack up today, and what they can do for you.

Continue reading the rest of this story here.

MONEY Tech

Why GoDaddy’s IPO Shares Look Cheap

A lot could still go wrong.

GoDaddy, the website hosting service with the provocative ads and a NASCAR sponsorship, is going public this week. Everyone loves a coming-out party, particularly for a well-known consumer brand. In general, however, investors ought to be appropriately skeptical of initial public offerings, particularly for well-hyped technology companies. In these transactions – as with any investment — price is what you pay and value is what you receive: Below, I lay out my initial thoughts on GoDaddy’s valuation.

“We have a history of operating losses and may not be able to achieve profitability in the future.”

That is one of the prominent risk factors that greets prospective investors in GoDaddy’s most recent prospectus. On a GAAP [generally accepted accounting principles] basis, GoDaddy has lost $622 million cumulatively over the past three years – hardly inconsequential for a company that generated $4.2 billion during that period. The good news, however, is that, as of last year, GoDaddy is profitable on the basis of free cash flow (which is what really matters, ultimately — not GAAP earnings).

By my calculations and based on a share price of $18 (the midpoint of the current indicative range of $17 to $19), GoDaddy’s enterprise value-to-EBITDA multiple is 7.2. Enterprise value (EV) is the sum of a company’s market capitalization and its net debt; EBITDA is a measure of cash flow, the acronym refers to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

It’s cheap, surely

On that basis, GoDaddy is cheaper than all 10 companies in Bloomberg’s selection of comparable companies for which this multiple exists and roughly in line with AOL AOL INC AOL -2.93% , at 7.5. The median for the group, which includes Facebook, Google, IAC/Interactive IAC/INTERACTIVECORP IACI -0.46% , Yahoo! and Yelp is 15.1.

So, GoDaddy looks cheap, then. If only it were that straightforward. I calculated GoDaddy’s EV/EBITDA using the firm’s own adjusted EBITDA figure of $271.5 million. However, Bloomberg puts 2014 EBITDA at $90.9 million, which would lift the EV/ EBITDA to 21.8. All of a sudden, GoDaddy is more expensive than all but three of its peers and significantly more expensive than Google, for example, at 14.7. As such, using EV/ EBITDA is inconclusive until one examines the adjustments the company makes to derive its EBITDA figure. I would tend to remain skeptical and lean toward an “expensive” verdict here.

On the other hand, looking at the price-to-free cash flow multiple, GoDaddy looks like a remarkable bargain at 2.3. Alas, a whopping three-quarters of its $443.8 free cash flow to equity in 2014 was the product of an increase in long-term borrowings — not a sustainable source of free cash flow. Still, even if we substitute the operating cash flow figure of $180.6 million for free cash flow, the multiple only rises to 5.6, which looks very reasonable by comparison with AOL (9.2), IAC/Interactive (15.1) or Yahoo! (85.3). In fact, that multiple would put it at the very bottom of its peer group.

Finally, let’s resort to a blunt instrument: the price-to-sales multiple. For GoDaddy, that number is 0.73, which looks pretty darn cheap for a technology company. The S&P North American Technology Sector Index was valued at 2.92 times sales at the end of February.

May be cheap… within the indicative pricing range

I’m going to come down on the side that says, based on this preliminary assessment, GoDaddy shares look cheap. (That holds at the $18-per-share midpoint of the indicative pricing range, which could of course end up being substantially lower than the price at which they become available in the secondary market.) The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the GoDaddy IPO could see the company raise as much as $418 million and give it a market value near $3 billion.

Furthermore, the business has some attractive qualities, including its high retention rates (over 85% in aggregate and approximately 90% for customers that have been with the service for over three years). Nevertheless, I would strongly encourage investors who are considering buying the shares to read the prospectus closely, particularly the “Risk Factors” section (all 36 pages of it!). Everyone likes to imagine what could go right with an investment, but a prudent investor likes to spend more time gauging what could go wrong.

Related Links

MONEY Warren Buffett

Investing Advice from Warren Buffett’s Right-Hand Man

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, right, and his right-hand-man, Charlie Munger.
Nati Harnik—AP Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, right, and his right-hand-man, Charlie Munger.

Words of wisdom from Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

There aren’t many iron rules of investing, but one of them is “When Charlie Munger speaks, drop everything and listen.”

Munger, the 91-year-old billionaire vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has two amazing traits: He’s brilliant, which gives him authority, and he’s rich and old, which amplifies freedom of speech to a level most of us couldn’t get away with. He says what’s on his mind without fear of offending anyone. It makes him one of the most quotable investors of all time.

Munger gave a talk this week at the Daily Journal, where he’s chairman. Investor Alex Rubalcava took notes. Here are some great things Munger said (my comments below).

“I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”

Time is the individual investor’s last remaining edge on professionals. If you can think about the next five years while most are focused on the next five months, you have an advantage over everyone who tries to outperform based on sheer intellect.

“The finance industry is 5% rational people and 95% shamans and faith healers.”

There are few other industries in which people are paid so much to be so consistently wrong while clients come back for more without demanding any change.

“I think that someone my age has lived through the best and easiest period in the history of the world.”

People ignore the really important news because it happens slowly, but obsess over trivial news because it happens all day long. News headlines will forever be dominated by pessimism, but by almost any metric we are living through the greatest period in world history.

“When things are damn near impossible, maybe you should stop trying.”

Related: Everyone should know the difference between patience and stubbornness. Patience is the willingness to wait a long time while remaining open to changing your mind when the facts change. Stubbornness is the willingness to wait a long time while ignoring and dismissing evidence that you’re wrong.

“Other people are trying to act smarter. I’m just trying to be non-idiotic.”

Napoleon’s definition of a military genius was “The man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” It’s the same with investing: You don’t have to be brilliant, you just have to consistently be not stupid.

“If the incentives are wrong, the behavior will be wrong. I guarantee it.”

Anyone criticizing the behavior of “greedy Wall Street bankers” underestimates their tendency to do the same thing if offered an eight-figure salary.

“I don’t spend too much time thinking about what is almost certain never to happen.”

This likely includes: accurate economic forecasts, stable markets, consistent outperformance, reasonable politicians, and hyperinflation.

“I don’t think anything that any average person can do easily is likely to be worthwhile.”

Good investing hurts. It’s not any fun. It requires the ability to endure things most people aren’t, such as bear markets that last for years and times when you perform worse than average.

“The way to get rich is to keep $10 million in your checking account in case a good deal comes along.”

You don’t need $10 million, but cash in the bank will be the best friend you’ve ever had when stocks fall. If you’re upset that your cash is earning a dismal interest rate right now, you’re doing it wrong. Cash’s value isn’t its ability to earn interest. Providing flexibility and options is how it earns its keep.

“Nobody survives open heart surgery better than the guy who didn’t need the procedure in the first place.”

Avoid debt. Spend less than you earn. Advocate humility. Learn from your mistakes. If you can manage to not screw up too many times in investing you’ll probably do just fine over time.

For more:

MONEY 401k plans

What You Can Learn From 401(k) Millionaires in the Making

These folks are doing all the right things to reach retirement with a seven-figure nest egg.

The 401(k) has become the No. 1 way for Americans to save for retirement. And save they have. The average plan balance has hit a record high, and the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012. In the first part of this series, we shared tips for building a $1 million retirement plan. Now meet workers on track to join the millionaires club—and get inspired by their smart moves. Once you hit your goal, learn more about making your money last and getting smart about taxes when you draw down that $1 million.
  • Greg and Jesseca Lyons, both 30

    Greg and Jesseca Lyons

    Carmel, Indiana
    Years to $1 million: 15
    Best move: Never cashed out their 401(k)s

    Though only 30, Greg and Jesseca Lyons are well on their way to reaching their retirement goals. The Lyons—he’s an operations manager for a small research company, she’s a product development engineer for a medical device maker—are on the same page when it comes to planning for the future.

    College sweethearts who have been married seven years, they made a commitment to start investing for retirement with their first jobs. They contribute 15% of their salaries. Employer matches bring that annual savings rate to about 19%. Together, they have $250,000 in their retirement accounts, invested 90% in stocks and 10% in bonds.

    Unlike many young people, they have resisted the temptation to cash out their 401(k)s when they changed jobs. Though they dialed back contributions for about six months when they were saving for a down payment, the Lyons didn’t stop putting money away. “We have stuck with the idea that retirement money is retirement money forever,” says Greg. His goal is to retire by age 60. For Jesseca, saving is about independence and financial security. “I love what I do, so I don’t see retiring early. But I don’t want to be worried or stressed out about our money either,” she says. “I am not going to sacrifice our retirement just to live a certain lifestyle now.”

  • Tajuana Hill, 46

    By starting to save for retirement at age 26, Tajuana Hill has put herselv on track to grow a seven-figure 401(k).
    Jesse Burke

    Indianapolis
    Years to $1 million: 17
    Best Move: Keeps raising her savings rate

    It’s taken Tajuana Hill, an employee trainer with Rolls-Royce, two decades to max out her 401(k), but she’s been a steady saver since her twenties. When she joined the firm at age 26, she put 10% of her pay into her plan right away. As her income rose, she ramped that up to 12%, then 17%, and finally 20% in January.

    Her reward: $224,000 in her 401(k)—all the more impressive since her employer offers no match. What has helped Hill is a side business she launched three years ago, Mimosa and a Masterpiece, an art studio where students can sip a drink during painting classes taught by local artists. The extra income let her pay off her credit cards, freeing up earnings from her day job so she could boost her 401(k) contributions.

    “When I retire, I hope to do it as a millionaire,” says Hill. If she sticks to this regimen, her 401(k) could top $1 million just as she reaches 65.

  • Steven and Melanie Thorne, both 37

    Steve and Melanie Thorne have been disciplined about hiking their retirement contributions with every raise. Melanie saves 10% of her pay in her plan, while Steve sets aside 12%. They even save extra in Roth IRAs.
    Jesse Burke

    York, Pennsylvania
    Years to $1 million: 15
    Best move: Invest in low-cost stock index funds

    Having a healthy stake in stocks is a hallmark of 401(k) millionaires. With decades to go until retirement, you can ride out market swings. That’s a philosophy Steven and Melanie Thorne have embraced. Together they have $310,000 in their workplace retirement plans, Roth IRAs, and a brokerage account, all invested 100% in stocks. “We are young, so we can be more aggressive,” says Steve, a security officer at a nuclear power plant.

    Investing is a passion for Steven, who first started saving for retirement with a Roth IRA when he was 18. He says he follows Warren Buffett’s philosophy about buying stocks: Be greedy when others are fearful, be fearful when others are greedy. But, he says, he and Melanie, a nurse, are buy-and-hold investors and keep most of their portfolio in low-cost index funds.

    Steven and Melanie have been disciplined about hiking their retirement contributions with every raise. Melanie saves 10% of her pay in her plan, while Steven sets aside 12%. They even save extra in Roth IRAs. They live below their means and direct tax refunds into retirement accounts, as well as save for college for their five year old son Chase. “We look for extra ways to save cash and keep our investment costs low,” says Steven.

  • Jonathan and Margaret Kallay, 56 and 53

    By saving more as big expenses fell away and their incomes rose, Jonathan and Margaret Kallay have been able to amass 401(k)s worth a combined $750,000.
    Jesse Burke

    Westerville, Ohio
    Years to $1 million: Four
    Best move: Power saving late

    Life can get in the way of saving for retirement, but ramping up your savings later in your career pays off. Jonathan and Margaret Kallay contributed only small amounts to their retirement plans early on. “It wasn’t much, about $50 a paycheck on a $13,000-a-year salary,” says Jonathan, a firefighter. Margaret, then an ER nurse, put away 5% of her pay.

    As big expenses fell away, the Kallays saved more. Married in 1993, the couple each paid child support for daughters from previous marriages until the girls reached 18. Once that ended and they paid off car loans, the money went toward retirement.

    Earning more has helped too. Jonathan worked extra shifts as a paramedic. Margaret got a business degree and is now a vice president at an insurance company, where she gets a generous company match. They each put about 15% in their 401(k)s, which total $750,000 and could hit $1 million in four years. They plan to quit work soon to spend more time traveling and spending time with their daughters and 5-year-old twin grandsons. “We’ve made a lot of sacrifices to invest for retirement,” says Jonathan. “It’s all been worth it.”

  • Mel and Heather Petersen, both 35

    Mel and Heather Petersen with sons Carter and Perry

    Reidsville, N.C.
    Years to $1 million: 17
    Best move: Buying rental properties to bring in more money

    Despite modest incomes in the early years of their careers, Mel and Heather Petersen have accumulated nearly $200,000 in retirement savings. Their strategy: Consistent saving. Mel, a public school teacher, says his salary has averaged about $40,000 most of his working life. Today he earns $50,000 a year. Heather, a marketing analyst who contributes 10% of her income to her 401(k), has seen a steadier increase in her earnings over the years, bringing the couple to a six-figure combined income.

    “We have always saved money for retirement no matter what our income, and never stopped no matter what financial challenges we have faced,” says Mel, dad to two boys, 8-year-old Carter and 4-year-old Perry.

    It helps that the Petersens supplement their retirement savings with income from rental properties that they began buying seven years ago. Several are paid off, and after expenses they gross about $5,000 a month in rental income. They hope to continue investing in real estate to boost their retirement savings. “We want to max out our retirement accounts down the road,” says Mel.

  • Larry and Christianne Schertel, both 58

    Larry and Christie Schertel

    Valatie, New York
    Years to $1 million: zero
    Best move: Kept faith in stocks

    Investors have enjoyed a roaring bull market for the past six years. But financial markets are cyclical. Even the most dedicated savers can panic and abandon stocks when the markets goes south.

    Despite the massive downturn during the Great Recession, Larry and Christianne Schertel didn’t budge from their 75% stock allocation. “When the market collapsed in 2008, we stayed the course and were nicely rewarded as the markets rebounded,” says Larry, an operations manager at a transportation company until his retirement this January. As they closed in on retirement, the Schertels reduced equities to about 60%. Together with Christianne, who works as an elementary school teaching assistant, the Schertels have just over $1 million in retirement accounts.

    In addition to their resolve during market fluctuations, the Schertels say automating their savings, living below their means, limiting debt, and investing in low-cost funds helped them reach the $1 million mark. “There really is no magic to it,” says Larry. “It is just being disciplined.”

MONEY Oil

Two Big Reasons You Won’t Be Spending More On Gas Anytime Soon

Shaybah oilfield complex, in the Rub' al-Khali desert, Saudi Arabia, November 14, 2007.
Ali Jarekji—REUTERS Shaybah oilfield complex, in the Rub' al-Khali desert, Saudi Arabia.

Chinese demand doesn’t seem to be improving, and Saudi Arabia is actually boosting production.

The beleaguered oil industry was hit with a double dose of bad news on Tuesday, which initially sent oil prices down. On the supply side, Saudi Arabia continues to make good on its refusal to cut its production, instead, it actually boosted production close to an all-time high. Meanwhile, weaker than expected demand in China doesn’t appear to be improving as factory data from the world’s top oil importer slipped to an 11-month low. Unless these two trends reverse course both could continue to put pressure on oil prices in the months ahead.

Gushing supplies

Saudi Arabia is making it abundantly clear that it has no intention of cutting its oil production to reduce the current glut of oil on the market. This past weekend its OPEC governor, Mohammed al-Madi, said that the market can forget about a return of triple digit oil prices for the time being. That statement was backed up by the country’s oil production data, which according to a Reuters report is now up to 10 million barrels per day. Not only is that near its all-time high, but its 350,000 barrels per day more than the country told OPEC it would produce last month. In fact, as we can see in the following chart the Kingdom’s oil output has steadily risen over the past few decades and is nearing its previous peak from the 1980s.

Saudi Arabia Crude Oil Production Chart

Typically the Saudi’s are the first to cut oil production when the market has too much supply. However, this time it’s more concerned with keeping its share of the oil market that it’s willing to flood the market with cheap oil in order to slow down production growth from places like the U.S., Canada, and Russia. This is leaving the world short of places to put the excess oil asstorage space is quickly running low due to weaker than expected demand.

China continues to slow

To make matters worse, China, which is the world’s second largest economy and top oil importer, continues to see its economic growth slow suggesting its demand for oil could be even more tepid in the months ahead. The latest data out of China shows that factory activity is now at an 11-month low. This was after the HSBC/Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index was at 49.2 for March, well below the 50.7 mark from February. Not only is that below the 50.6 that economists had expected, but it’s now below the 50-point mark that separates growth from a contraction.

That’s bad news for oil prices because as the following chart shows China’s rapidly expanding economy has been a key driver of its surging oil demand over the past decade.

China Oil Consumption Chart

With China’s economic growth slowing down it’s leading to a slowdown in its demand for oil. That leaves robust global oil supplies with nowhere to go at the moment as demand for oil in Europe has been weakened by its own economic issues while the U.S. no longer needs as much imported oil thanks to efficiency gains as well as its own robust output. This will put pressure on oil prices as increased demand for oil from China was seen as a key for an oil price rally.

Investor takeaway

So much for peak oil as Saudi Arabia has now pushed its production close to its all-time high with no signs that it plans to tap the brakes. That’s coming at the worst possible moment as the oil market is oversupplied by upwards of two million barrels per day at the moment due to weaker than expected demand in China. Worse yet, Chinese demand could start to contract as its economic machine is notably showing down. This means that investors in oil stocks are in for more volatility as the market continues to work through its supply and demand issues.

Related Links

MONEY stocks

3 Ways to Profit by Going Against the Crowd

fish jumping from crowded fishbowl to empty one
Yasu+Junko—Prop Styling by Shane Klein

Though it's scary, your best move in today's choppy market is to do what others fear.

Take a deep breath. After a whirlwind start to the year, you can be forgiven for feeling nervous about the state of the financial markets.

Yes, the Dow and the S&P 500 are back up after sharp declines earlier this year. But stocks are still on pace for their most volatile year since 2011. Sure, plunging prices at the pump are good for consumers, but they’ve taken a hammer to energy stocks. And interest rates around the world keep sinking. While falling yields boost the value of older bonds in your fixed-income funds, they sure make it hard to generate any income.

Rather than following the crowd that’s selling on today’s fears, take advantage of falling prices and do a little bargain hunting. Here are three places where that’s possible.

THE ROCKY STOCK MARKET

The worry: In 2013 and 2014, the S&P 500 experienced daily swings of 1% or more about once every six trading days. So far this year, it’s been one in three.

What the crowd is doing: Racing into low-volatility funds that focus on boring Steady Eddie companies like Procter & Gamble. As a result, the price/earnings ratio for stocks in the PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility ETF is 12% higher than the broad market. Yet “low vol” shares have historically traded at a 25% discount.

The smarter move: Look to an industry that’s not particularly thought of as a safe harbor in a storm: technology. Mature tech anyway. “On a relative basis, older, established tech firms look really attractive,” says BlackRock global investment strategist Heidi Richardson. Many tech giants, such as Apple APPLE INC. AAPL -0.14% , trade at P/E ratios of around 15 or less.

They also have a ton of cash, which lets them invest in research and development while still paying dividends. Moreover, the recent volatility in stocks has stemmed from fears that the Federal Reserve may start hiking rates this year. Well, tech has historically outpaced the S&P 500 in the six months following rate hikes. Lean into this group through iShares U.S. Technology ISHARES TRUST REG. SHS OF DJ US TECH.SEC.IDX IYW -0.53% . Apple, Microsoft, and Intel make up more than a third of this ETF’s holdings.

THE ENERGY CRISIS

The worry: Oil prices may not be done falling. UBS, in fact, believes that the price of a barrel of crude may not return to recent highs for another 60 months.

What the crowd is doing: Ditching blue-chip energy stocks, including giants such as Conoco-Phillips and Halliburton, which have sunk 20% to 40% lately.

The smarter move: Play the odds. The Leuthold Group found that a simple strategy of buying the market’s cheapest sector—now energy, based on median P/E ratios—and holding on for a year has trounced the broad market. “Value surfaces without even needing a catalyst,” says Doug Ramsey, Leuthold’s chief investment officer.

You can gain broad exposure through Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF ENERGY SELECT SECTOR SPDR ETF XLE -0.03% , which beat 99% of its peers over the past decade and charges fees of just 0.15% a year.

THE THREAT OF DEFLATION

The worry: Rates around the world will keep sinking, as conventional wisdom says deflation is a bigger threat than inflation.

What the crowd is doing: Pulling billions from products such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities that are meant to guard against rising prices—investments now yielding even less than regular bonds.

The smarter move: Embrace that lower-yielding debt, at least with a small part of your portfolio. Joe Davis, head of Vanguard’s investment strategy group, says inflation may not spike soon. But the time to buy inflation insurance is when no one is scared, and it’s cheap. Consumer prices would only have to rise more than 1.8% annually over the next decade for 10-year TIPS to outperform.

Conservative investors should look to short-term TIPS, which are less sensitive to rate hikes, says Davis. Vanguard Target Retirement 2015, for instance, allocates about 8% of its portfolio to the Vanguard Short-Term Inflation-Protected Fund VANGUARD SH-TRM INF-PRTC SEC IDX IV VTIPX 0.25% .

This won’t seem fruitful—until, that is, inflation finally rears up.

MONEY Macroeconomic trends

8 Surprising Economic Trends That Will Shape the Next Century

crowd of people
Douglas Mason—Getty Images

Here are the stories that will matter in the years ahead.

Forget monthly jobs reports, GDP releases, and quarterly earnings. As I see it, there are eight important economic stories worth tracking right now that could have a big impact in the coming decades.

1. The U.S. population age 30-44 declined by 3.8 million from 2002 to 2012. That cohort is now growing again. By 2023 there will be an estimated 5.8 million more Americans aged 30 to 44 than there are now, according to the Census Bureau. This is important, because this age group spends tons of money, buys lots of homes and cars, and start lots of new businesses.

2. U.S. companies have $2.1 trillion cash held abroad. Much of this is because we have an inane tax code that taxes foreign profits twice: Once in the country they’re earned in, and again when companies bring that money back to the United States. If Congress ends this rule and switches to a territorial tax system — in which countries can bring foreign-earned cash back to their home country without paying another layer of taxes, as every other developed country allows — there could be a flood of new dividends, buybacks, and investments in America. It’s huge, pent-up demand waiting to be spent.

3. U.S. infrastructure is in disastrous shape. Roads, bridges, dams, and other public infrastructure have been neglected for years. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $3.6 trillion in new investment is needed by 2020 to bring the country’s infrastructure up to “good” condition. Will this happen soon? Of course not. This is Congress we’re talking about. But the good news is that this work must eventually be done. You can’t just let critical bridges and water structures fail and say, “Damn. That Brooklyn Bridge was nice while we had it.” Things will have to be repaired. Sooner rather than later would be smart, because we can borrow now for zero percent interest. But someday, it will happen. And it’ll be a huge boon to jobs and growth when it does.

4. The whole structure of modern business is changing. I’m not sure who said it first, but this quote has been floating around Twitter lately: “In 2015 Uber, the world’s largest taxi company owns no vehicles, Facebook the world’s most popular media owner creates no content, Alibaba, the most valuable retailer has no inventory, and Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider owns no real estate.” Fundamental assumptions about what is needed to be a successful business have changed in just the last few years.

5. California is one of the most important agricultural states, growing 99% of the nation’s artichokes, 94% of broccoli, 95% of celery, 95% of garlic, 85% of lettuce, 95% of tomatoes, 73% of spinach, 73% of melons, 69% of carrots, 99% of almonds, 98% of pistachios, and 89% of berries (the list goes on). And the state is basically running out of water. Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote last week: “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year megadrought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.” This could change rapidly in one good winter, but it could also turn into a quick tailwind on food prices. It could also be a huge boost for desalination companies.

6. New home construction will probably need to rise 40% from current levels to keep up with long-term household formation. We’re now building about 1 million new homes a year. That will likely have to rise to an average of 1.4 million per year, which combines Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies’ projection of 1.2 million new households being formed each year and an annual average of 200,000 homes being lost to natural disaster or torn down. This is important because new home construction is, historically, one of the top drivers of economic growth.

7. American households have the lowest debt burden in more than three decades. And the largest portion of household debt is mortgages, most of which are fixed-rate. So when people ask, “What’s going to happen to debt burdens when interest rates rise?”, the answer is “Probably not that much.”

8. America has some of the best demographics among major economies. Between 2012 and 2050, America’s working-age population (those ages 15-64) is projected to rise by 47 million. China’s working-age population is set to shrink by 200 million, Russia’s to fall by 34 million, Japan’s by 27 million, Germany’s by 13 million, and France’s by 1 million. People worry about the impact of retiring U.S. baby boomers, but the truth is we have favorable demographics other countries can’t even dream about. This is massively overlooked and underappreciated.

There’s a lot more important stuff going on, of course. And the biggest news story of the next 20 years is almost certainly something that nobody is talking about today. But if I had to bet on eight big trends that will very likely make a difference, these would be them.

For more:

MONEY Warren Buffett

3 Warren Buffett Habits We Should All Adopt

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
Lacy O'Toole—CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty I Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Warren Buffett has grown from a boy who at 7 years old roamed the streets of Omaha selling bottles of Coca-Cola for a nickel to a man who now sits atop the Berkshire Hathaway empire he created, with over $525 billion in assets.

Are you curious to know what habits enabled him to get there? Well, there are three we all can, and should, adopt.

Never stop learning

In the 50th annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Charlie Munger, the longtime second-in-command at Berkshire, spoke about one of Buffett’s most enduring and important traits that led to his success:

Buffett’s decision to limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years, was a lollapalooza. Buffett succeeded for the same reason Roger Federer became good at tennis.

Buffett was, in effect, using the winning method of the famous basketball coach, John Wooden, who won most regularly after he had learned to assign virtually all playing time to his seven best players. … And Buffett much out-Woodened Wooden, because in his case the exercise of skill was concentrated in one person, not seven, and his skill improved and improved as he got older and older during 50 years.

In other words, Buffett figured out what he was good at and stuck with it through thick and thin, always honing his skill.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that for anyone to truly become an expert at something, there is some element of inherent skill involved, but there is also a key component of practice. And the key is dedicating at least 10,000 hours of time to become a true expert. Gladwell asserts: “[P]ractice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

He cites examples such as Bill Gates, who sneaked out of his parents’ house at night while he was in high school to learn computer coding, or the Beatles, who played eight hours a day in various bars across Hamburg, Germany, before they really mastered their craft.

And the same is true of Buffett, as he himself once remarked:

I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions, than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.

In the same way, in his hit song “I Know I Can,” rapper Nas said:

Boys and girls, listen up / You can be anything in the world, in God we trust / An architect, doctor, maybe an actress / But nothing comes easy, it takes much practice

So no matter where life takes you or what you do, always remember — whether you learn from Buffett, the Beatles, Bill Gates, or Nas — while we’ll never be perfect, persistent practice will always help take us one step closer.

Patience is key

The world around us is moving at a speed that is truly hard to grasp. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “[I]t took 75 years for telephones to achieve 50 million users, while Angry Birds reached that goal in a mere 35 days.”

Another of Buffett’s distinct and admirable characteristics is his patience.

In 2003, he noted:

We bought some Wells Fargo shares last year. Otherwise, among our six largest holdings, we last changed our position in Coca-Cola in 1994, American Express in 1998, Gillette in 1989, Washington Post in 1973, and Moody’s in 2000. Brokers don’t love us.

But consider for a moment his remarks in the 2010 letter to shareholders, in which he said that for Berkshire to succeed:

We will need both good performance from our current businesses and more major acquisitions. We’re prepared. Our elephant gun has been reloaded, and my trigger finger is itchy.

It’s widely thought that means Buffett intends to purchase a single business worth tens of billions of dollars. While his trigger finger was itchy in 2010, and Berkshire’s cash pile now stands at over $60 billion, Buffett has distinctly been willing to sit on the sidelines until the right opportunity presented itself.

There is obvious value in moving quickly into something if it’s a no-brainer decision and time is of the essence, but otherwise, we would all do well to take a step back and exhibit a little more patience.

And that could be patience in buying batteries at the grocery store, or, like Buffett, the company that makes those batteries.

Give credit where it’s due

One of the final things to note about Buffett is his eagerness to commend the team of managers who surround him.

Consider his 2009 remark about Ajit Jain, who heads Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance and is widely speculated to be a candidate to replace Buffett atop Berkshire:

If Charlie, I, and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat — and you can only save one of us — swim to Ajit.

Or his remarks about Todd Combs and Ted Weschler — who each manage a sizable stock portfolio at Berkshire Hathaway — in the 2013 letter:

In a year in which most equity managers found it impossible to outperform the S&P 500, both Todd Combs and Ted Weschler handily did so. Each now runs a portfolio exceeding $7 billion. They’ve earned it. I must again confess that their investments outperformed mine. (Charlie says I should add “by a lot.”) If such humiliating comparisons continue, I’ll have no choice but to cease talking about them. Todd and Ted have also created significant value for you in several matters unrelated to their portfolio activities. Their contributions are just beginning: Both men have Berkshire blood in their veins.

Or consider his praise for Tony Nicely in 2005:

Credit Geico — and its brilliant CEO, Tony Nicely — for our stellar insurance results in a disaster-ridden year. … Last year, Geico gained market share, earned commendable profits, and strengthened its brand. If you have a new son or grandson in 2006, name him Tony.

And the list could go on and on.

Here’s a man worth more than $70 billion, who understands that the works of others were just as important to his success as his own. So no matter where we are, we should always take the time to thank the people who helped us get there.

While we’ll always only be ourselves, adopting these three habits will help us no matter where our path takes us.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com