MONEY stocks

China’s Boom Is Over — and Here’s What You Can Do About It

Illustration of Chinese dragon as snail
Edel Rodriguez

The powerhouse that seemed ready to propel the global economy for decades is now stuck in a period of slowing growth. Here’s what that means for your portfolio

Every so often an investment theme comes along that seems so big and compelling that you feel it can’t be ignored. This happened in the 1980s with Japanese stocks. It happened again with the Internet boom of the 1990s. You know how those ended.

Today history appears to be repeating itself in China.

Just a decade ago, China was hailed as the engine that would single-handedly drive the global economy for years to come. That seemed plausible, as a billion Chinese attempted something never before accomplished: tran­sitioning from an agrarian to an industrial to a consumer economy, all in a single generation.

Recently, however, this ride to prosperity has hit the skids. A real estate bubble threatens to crimp consumer wealth; over-investment in a wide range of industries is likely to dampen growth; and the transition to a developed economy is stuck in an awkward phase that has trapped other emerging markets.

No wonder Chinese equities—despite a strong rebound last year—are down around half from their 2007 peak.

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Like the Japan and dotcom manias before it, China looks like an old story. “Do you have to be in China?” asks Henrik Strabo, head of international investments for Rainier Investment Management in Seattle. “The truth is, no.”

If you’ve bought the China story—and since 2000 hundreds of thousands of U.S. investors have plowed $176 billion into emerging-markets mutual and exchange-traded funds, which have big stakes in China—that’s a pretty bold statement.

In fact, even if you haven’t invested directly in Chinese stocks and simply hold a broad-based international equity fund, China’s Great Slowdown has an impact on how you should think about your portfolio. Here’s what you need to understand about China’s next chapter.

China Has Hit More Than a Speed Bump

After expanding at an annual clip of more than 10% a decade ago, China’s economy has slowed, growing at just over 7% in 2014. That’s expected to fall to 6.5% in the next couple of years, according to economists at UBS. And then it’s “on to 5% and below over the coming decade,” says Jeffrey Kleintop, chief global investment strategist at Charles Schwab.

Why is this worrisome when gross domestic product in the U.S. is expanding at a much slower 3%?

For starters, it represents a steep drop from prior expectations. As recently as three years ago, economists had been forecasting that China would still be growing at roughly an 8% clip by 2016.

The bigger worry is that the slowdown means that China has reached a phase that frustrates many emerging economies on the path to becoming fully “developed,” a stage some economists refer to as the middle-income trap.

On the one hand, a growing number of Chinese are approaching middle-class status, which means wages are on the rise. That sounds good, but rising labor costs chip away at China’s competitive advantage in older, industrial sectors. “You’re seeing more and more manufacturers look at other, cheaper markets like Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines,” says Eric Moffett, manager of the T. Rowe Price Asia Opportunities Fund.

At the same time, the country’s new consumer-centric economy has yet to fully form. About half of China’s urban population is thought to be middle-class by that nation’s standards, but half of Chinese still live in the countryside, and the vast majority of those households are poor. Couple this with the deteriorating housing market—which accounts for the bulk of the wealth for the middle class—and you can see why China isn’t able to buy its way to prosperity just yet.

This in-between stage is when fast-growing economies typically downshift significantly. After prolonged periods of “supercharged” expansion, these economies tend to suffer through years when they regress to a more typical rate of global growth, according to a recent paper by Harvard professors Lawrence Summers and Lant Pritchett.

In some cases, like Brazil, this slowdown prevents the economy from taking that final step to advanced status. Brazil had been expanding 5.2% a year from 1967 to 1980, but that growth slowed to less than 1% annually from 1981 to 2002.

No one is saying China will be stuck in this trap for a generation, like Brazil, but China could be looking at a long-term growth rate closer to 4% to 5% than 8% to 10%.

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Your best strategy: Go where the growth is—at home. A few years ago the global economy was ex­pected to expand at an annual pace of 4.2% in 2015, trouncing the U.S.  Today the forecast is down to 3.1%, pretty much the same pace as the U.S. economy, which is expected to keep accelerating through 2017.

In recent years, some market strategists and financial planners have instructed investors to keep as much as 40% to 50% of their stocks in foreign funds. But ­dropping that allocation to 20% to 30% still gives you most of the diversification benefit of owning non-U.S. stocks.

The Losers Aren’t Just in Asia

China’s rise to power lifted the fortunes of its neighboring trade partners too, so it stands to reason that a broad swath of the emerging markets is now at risk. “China is still the beating heart of Asia and the emerging markets,” says Moffett. “If it slows down, all the other countries exporting to and importing from China will see their growth prospects affected.”

The country’s biggest trading partners in the region are Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and all are slowing down. Economists forecast that the growth rates in those four nations will slip below 3% next year.

Beyond Asia, “you have to be careful with the commodity exporters,” says Rainier’s Strabo. China’s slowdown over the past five years is a big reason commodity prices in general and oil specifically have sunk more than 50% since 2011.

China consumes about 40% of the world’s copper and 11% of its oil. As the country’s appetite for commodities wanes, natural resource producers such as Australia, Russia, and Latin America will feel the blow.

Your best strategy: Keep your emerging-markets stake to around 5% of your total portfolio. If your only foreign exposure is a total international equity fund, then you’re probably already there. If, however, you’ve tacked on an emerging-markets “tilt” to your portfolio to try to boost returns, unwind those positions, starting with funds focusing on Asia, Latin America, or Russia.

Here’s another bet that’s now played out: A popular strategy in the global slowdown was to take fliers on Western companies with the biggest exposure to China—companies such as the British spirits maker Diageo (think Johnnie Walker and Guinness) and Yum Brands (KFC and Pizza Hut)—solely because of their China reach. And for a while, that paid off.

Now, though, the stocks of Yum and Diageo have stalled, and major global companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Unilever have reported disappointing results recently in part owing to subpar sales in China as well as in other emerging markets.

Demographic Problems Will Only Make Things Worse

For years, China’s sheer size was seen as a massive competitive advantage. Indeed, China has three times as many workers as the United States has people.

Yet as the country’s older workers have been retiring, China’s working-age population has been quietly shrinking in recent years. Economists say this will most likely lead to labor shortages over the coming years, putting even more pressure on wages to rise.

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China’s demographic problem has been exacerbated by the country’s “one-child” policy, which has prevented an estimated 400 million births since 1979. But China isn’t the only emerging market suffering from bad demographic trends.

Birthrates are low throughout East Asia. The ratio of people 15 to 64 to those 65 and older will plummet from about 7 to 1 to 3 to 1 in the next 15 years in Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, dragging down growth.

Your best strategy: If you’re a growth-focused investor who wants more than that 5% stake in emerging markets, concentrate on developing economies with more youthful populations and more potential to expand. One fund that gives you that—with big holdings in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Colombia—is Harding Loevner Frontier Emerging Markets HARDING LOEVNER FRONT EM MKTS INV HLMOX 0.23% . Over the past five years, the fund has gained around 7% a year, more than triple the return of the typical emerging-markets portfolio.

Another option is EGShares ­Beyond BRICs EGA EMERGING GLOBA EGSHARES BEYOND BRICS ETF BBRC -0.49% . Rather than investing in the emerging markets’ old-guard leaders—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—this ETF counts firms from more consumer-driven economies, such as Mexico and Malaysia, among its top holdings.

The Parallels Between China and 1990s Japan are Alarming

For starters, China is facing a real estate crisis similar to Japan’s, says Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS. With easy access to cheap credit, developers have flooded the major cities with excess housing. Floor space per urban resident has grown to 40 square meters, compared with just 35 square meters in Japan and 33 in the U.K.

Not surprisingly, prices in 100 top Chinese cities have been sliding for seven months. Whether China’s property bubble bursts or not, falling home values chip away at household net worth; that, in turn, drags down consumer sen­timent and spending, Behravesh says.

Other unfortunate similarities between the two nations: Excess capacity plagues numerous sectors of China’s economy, ranging from steel to chemicals to an auto industry made up of 96 car­ brands.

Also, Chinese officials face political pressure to focus on short-term growth rather than long-term fixes. This type of thinking has resulted in the rise of so-called zombie companies, much like what Japan saw in the ’90s. “These are companies that aren’t really viable but are being kept alive,” Behravesh says. Yet for the economy to get back on track, inefficiently run businesses have to be allowed to fail, market strategists say.

Your best strategy: Focus on the few major differences between the two countries. Unlike Japan, for instance, China is still a young, emerging economy. Slowdown or not, “the growth of the middle class will continue in China, and that will absorb some of the overhang in the economy, which is something Japan couldn’t count on,” says Michael Kass, manager of Baron Emerging Markets Fund.

What’s more, when Japan’s bubble burst in late 1989, stocks in that country were trading at a frothy price/earnings ratio of around 50. By contrast, Chinese shares trade at a reasonable P/E of around 10.

To be sure, not all Chinese stocks enjoy such low valuations. As competition heats up to supply China’s population with basic goods, valuations on consumer staples companies have nearly doubled over the past four years to a P/E of around 27.

At the same time, the loss of faith in the Chinese story means there are decent values in industries that cater to the established middle and upper-middle class, says Nick Niziolek, co-manager of the Calamos Evolving World Growth Fund. Health care and gaming stocks in particular suffered setbacks last year. And Chinese consumer discretionary stocks are trading at a P/E of just 12, down from 20 five years ago.

You can invest in such businesses through EGShares Emerging Markets Domestic Demand ETF EGA EMERGING GLOBA EGSHARES EMERGING MKTS DOME EMDD -0.04% , which owns shares of companies that cater to local buyers within their home countries, rather than relying on exports. Chinese shares represent about 17% of the fund, led by names such as China Mobile.

That one of the world’s great growth stories is now best viewed as a place to pick up stocks on the cheap might seem a strange twist—until you remember your Japanese and Internet history.

MONEY stocks

Why Fidelity’s New App Won’t Make You a Better Investor

Personal familiarity with a company can backfire.

Fidelity has added a new GPS feature called “Stocks Nearby” to its flagship mobile app. Open it up and it shows your location on a map, plus all the businesses around you that are connected to a publicly traded company. So if you are standing next to a Starbucks, its ticker symbol (SBUX) will show up on the map with a link to info on the stock.

Fidelity’s press release says the tool helps people follow the maxim “buy what you know.” What that means is shopping in a packed Apple store or indulging in a delicious burger at Shake Shack might inspire you to invest in the underlying business.

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Fidelity Investments

The company doesn’t say so, but that idea was popularized back in the 1980s by legendary Fidelity Magellan fund manager Peter Lynch, who liked to tell a story about discovering his winning investment in Hanes when his wife brought home L’Eggs pantyhose from the supermarket. Great story. And it was also great marketing, because it made investing seem a lot less mysterious.

Not a great investing strategy, though. For example, one study shows that people who invest in industries they work in do worse than traders who don’t work in the business. “Investors confuse what is familiar with what is safe,” says Larry Swedroe of Buckingham Asset Management.

There are several other reasons not to base investment decisions on a stroll through your neighborhood. For one, the businesses you’re most familiar with are likely mostly consumer products—which means the approach would likely leave entire industries out of your portfolio.

Furthermore, says Swedroe, if buying individual companies you “know” tilts your portfolio toward companies with outposts in your home town or city, you may miss out on the protection that geographic diversification affords. Say you own real estate in your city, in addition to shares in nearby companies: Then you’re especially vulnerable to a downturn in the local economy.

Even if you were to invest in a global company like Walmart—a likely stop on your shopping routine if you are among the majority of Americans—being a consumer doesn’t make you an expert. “If you notice a brand is doing well, it’s naive to believe you have valuable information,” says Swedroe. “Mutual fund managers and other professionals have access to the same or better information about a company’s prospects, so it’s more likely that you are actually at a disadvantage.”

In other words, you are likely to ignore the riskier qualities of a company you think you know well as a customer or as a local and feel excited about. That confirmation bias, in addition to overconfidence in your own impressions, has been shown to lead to lower returns.

Fidelity public relations director Rob Beauregard says the company does not intend for users to trade stocks without doing research first—and that the new “Stocks Nearby” tool is “an investing idea generator, not a stock picker.”

No matter how it’s spun, a focus on buying what you know gets the thinking backwards. You have to really know what you are buying.

MONEY Kids & Money

What Investors Can Learn from the Famous Marshmallow Study

Plate of marshmallows
Elena Elisseeva—Alamy

You've probably heard what happened when a psychologist left 4-year-olds alone in a room with a marshmallow. But you've probably forgotten the study's most important insight.

I’m so sick of hearing about the marshmallow test.

You’ve probably heard of it. If not, here’s the short story.

In the 1960s, a psychologist named Walter Mischel studied a group of four-year olds. Mischel was fascinated with his own children’s cognitive development, and how — like most children — they seemed incredibly impulsive.

“I realized I didn’t have a clue what was going on in their heads,” he said recently.

He wanted to measure impulse control, so he came up with a game. A group of children could have one marshmallow right now. It sat on a plate in front of them. Or, if they waited a few minutes while he stepped out, they could have two when he returned.

Some impatiently took the first marshmallow. Others waited.

Mischel followed the kids for 50 years, measuring how impulse control correlated with future success in life.

It was huge.

Kids who delayed gratification in the marshmallow test went on to achieve higher standardized test scores, had higher educational attainment, even better BMI scores. (One girl ate the marshmallow before the game’s instructions were even explained. Bless her.)

The marshmallow test made its way into seemingly every book, article, and speech about behavioral psychology. I’ve seen it countless times. It’s way overused.

But the most important part of the study is often left out.

The original takeaway from Mischel’s research, and one still told today, was that people with more willpower are set up for more life success than their impulsive peers.

But after watching hundreds of kids take the marshmallow experiment, Mischel discovered something different.

The marshmallow test wasn’t necessarily about willpower. Almost every kid will take the first marshmallow if it’s put in front of them. If they’re looking at it, they’re nearly incapable of not eating it, even if a bigger reward awaits.

Instead, Mischel found that kids who successfully waited for a second marshmallow were often just better at distracting themselves, taking their minds off the treat.

They hid under a desk. Or sang a song. Or played with their shoes.

Impulse control isn’t really about a four year old’s ability to patiently wait for a second marshmallow. It’s more about that four year old’s propensity to say, “Hey, look, a soccer ball!”

Smokers trying to quit consistently overestimate their ability to turn down a cigarette. Dieters do the same. What Mischel’s research shows is if we want to be better at self-control, trying to have more willpower isn’t the solution. Instead, not putting yourself in a position where you’ll be tempted by cigarettes or junk food may be the best answer. Because if you’re around them, you’ll smoke, or eat. You can’t help it.

As Jonah Lehrer once put it: “Willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It’s about realizing that if we’re thinking about the marshmallow, we’re going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.”

It is the same in finance.

Bad investing behavior is the greatest cause of investor misery (fees are a close second).

People get excited and buy high, then panic and sell low. They fall for bubbles. They trade. They rotate. They fidget. They worry. They get a new idea, and go all in. Then change their mind, sell it all, and go to something else.

It’s devastating. If you can find a way to be less emotional and feel less need for constant action in investing, you’ve figured this game out.

But how do you do that?

Just like the four year old who found a path to the second marshmallow. You distract yourself with something else.

If watching financial news constantly tempts you to tweak your portfolio, turn it off.

If reading market forecasts has caused you to make regrettable decisions, stop reading them.

Go do something else.

Maybe read more books and fewer articles.

Be more choosy about who you’re willing to listen to.

The amount of financial information available has exploded over the last decade, but the amount of financial information that you need to be informed has not.

You have to learn how to sift through the news, and filter out what you don’t need. “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” Herbert Simon said. It also creates a dangerous tendency to lose self-control over your ability to be a patient long-term investor.

Just look the other way.

For more:

More from The Motley Fool: Where Are The Customers’ Yachts?

MONEY Markets

Why Investors Are So Bad at Predicting Market Crashes

NYSE New York Stock Exchange
Stephen Chernin—Getty Images

After the market does well, no one expects a crash. After it crashes, everyone expects it to crash.

Stocks have boomed for nearly six years now. Are we due for a crash?

Yeah, probably. It’ll happen some day. Crashes happen.

But anytime I see people touting metrics that supposedly predict when a cash will occur, I shake my head. None of them work.

Yale School of Management publishes a “Crash Confidence Index.” It measures the percentage of individual and professional investors who think we won’t have a market crash in the next six months. The lower the index, the more investors think a crash is coming.

Yesterday came the headline: “More And More Investors Are Convinced A Stock Market Crash Is Coming.”

The Crash Confidence Index plunged in December to its lowest level in two years. “Less than a quarter of institutional investors and less than a third of individual investors believed that stocks wouldn’t crash,” Business Insider wrote.

Before you panic and liquidate your account, the most important line in Business Insider’s article is this: “On the bright side, this indicator may be a contrarian indicator.”

Bingo.

Plot the Crash Confidence Index (in blue) next to what the S&P 500 did during the following 12 months (in red), and you get this:

Investors were increasingly confident that stocks wouldn’t crash in 2007, and then a crash came. Then they were sure a crash would occur in 2009, just as a monster rally began. Same thing to a lesser degree in 2011.

If you plot the Crash Confidence Index next to what stocks did in the previous two months, you kind of see what’s going on here.

After the market does well — like in 2007 — no one expects a crash. After it crashes — like in 2009 — everyone expects it to crash:

This is similar to the consumer confidence index, which consistently peaks just before the economy is about to get ugly and bottoms when things are about to turn. (Although we only know the timing in hindsight.)

Stocks have done poorly during the last few weeks, so it’s not too surprising that expectations of a crash are growing. People like to extrapolate returns into the future.

We’ll have a crash some day. But more money has probably been lost trying to predict and hedge against a looming crash than has been lost by just expecting and enduring one when it comes.

For more on on this stuff:

More from The Motley Fool: Where Are The Customers’ Yachts?

MONEY Jobs

Why Is Employment Picking Up? Thank Government

public construction workers
Reza Estakhrian—Getty Images

After hurting the employment picture for so long, local, state and federal governments are finally adding to payrolls.

The U.S. economy continued its winning streak by adding 252,000 jobs in December, the 11th consecutive month employers hired more than 200,000 workers. The unemployment rate fell to 5.6%, a post-recession low, as various sectors (from business services to health care to construction) added to payrolls.

Boosting hiring isn’t exactly new when it comes to private businesses, which have been bolstering their staffing for every month for almost five years.

What’s different about the recent pickup in employment is the positive effect of governments (state, local and federal). While jobs aren’t being added at rapid pace, they have grown steadily over the past year, and are no longer subtracting from the labor market like they were not too long ago.

Government employment increased by 12,000 in December, compared to a reduction of 2,000 employees in the last month of 2013. Compared to a year ago, state and local governments throughout the country have added a combined 108,000 jobs.

As recently as last January the government shed 22,000 positions. Sustained, incremental growth beats much of the sector’s post-recession record, which saw employment drop off thanks to lower tax revenue and austerity measures.

Government payrolls increased by about 0.5% over the last year — which doesn’t look terribly good compared to the private sector’s 2.1% gain. But when you look at the recent gains against the 0.05% decrease in the twelve months before January 2014, you start to appreciate the recent uptick.

Gov't jobs

What’s going on?

Well, state and local government finances have stabilized and marginally improved over the past couple of years, giving statehouses and municipalities a chance to improve its fiscal situation.

Take this note from a recent National Association of State Budget Officers report which says, “In contrast to the period immediately following the Great Recession, consistent year-over-year growth has helped states steadily increase spending, reduce taxes and fees, close budget gaps and minimize mid-year budget cuts.”

The nation’s economy grew at an annualized 5% rate in the third quarter, after jumping 4.6% in the three months before. The trade deficit fell in November to an 11-month low, thanks in part to lower energy costs, which will help fourth quarter growth.

NASBO expects states’s revenues to increase by 3.1% in the next fiscal year, compared to an estimated 1.3% gain in 2014, with much of that spending dedicated to education and Medicaid.

With a more solid financial position, governments across the country are able to spend more on basic items, like construction. Public construction, for instance, increased by 3.2% last November compared to the same time last year, according to the Census Bureau.

Overall government spending has stopped following dramatically and actually picked up in the third quarter on a year-over-year basis.

Expenditure

Of course, government employment still has a ways to go before returning to normal. In the five years after the dot-com inspired recession, public sector employment gained by 4.5%. (It’s fallen by 2.8% since the recession ended in June 2009.) And while state budgets have normalized, Governors aren’t exactly flush with cash.

Says NASBO: “More and more states are moving beyond recession induced declines, but spending growth is below average in fiscal 2015, as it has been throughout the economic recovery.”

Not to mention hourly earnings fell by five cents, to $24.57, a decline of 0.2%.

Still, some employment growth is better than none at all.

Updated with earnings data.

MONEY Millennials

How to Set Financial Priorities When You’re Young and Squeezed

man counting coins
MichaelDeLeon—Getty Images

You have a lot of demands on your money—and not a lot of it. Here's what to do first.

The most financially challenging state of life is not retirement, it is early career.

That’s the time when your salary is still probably low, but you have the longest list of expenses: career clothes, cell phone bills, your first home furnishings, cars, weddings, rent—need I go on? You probably don’t have enough money to pay for all of that at once, unless your parents have set you up very well or you are a junior investment banker.

The rest of us have to make choices with our limited “discretionary” income. Here is a rough priorities list for newbies who have shopping lists that are bigger than their bank accounts.

First, feed the 401(k) to the match, not the max. If your employer matches your contributions, make sure that your paycheck withdrawals are high enough to capture the entire company match. That is free money. If you have enough money to contribute more to your 401(k), that is a good thing to do, but only if you’re able to cover other key expenses.

Invest in items that will improve your lifetime earning power. A good interview suit. An advanced degree. The right electronic devices and services for the serious job hunt.

Pay off credit card balances. Chasing those “balance due” notices every month will kill just about any other financial goal you have. If you’re carrying significant credit card balances, abandon all other extra savings and spending until you’ve paid them off, in chunks as large as possible.

Put money into a Roth individual retirement account. The younger you are and the lower your tax bracket, the better this works out for you. Money goes in on an after-tax basis and comes out tax-free in retirement. You can withdraw your own contributions tax-free whenever you want. Once the account has been in existence for five years, you can pull an additional $10,000 out, tax-free, to buy a home. It’s nice to have a Roth, and the younger you start it the better.

Save for a home down payment. Homeownership is still a smart way to build equity over a lifetime. New guidelines will once again make mortgages available to people who make downpayments as low as 3%. Even though interest rates are still at unrewarding lows, it’s good to amass these earmarked funds in a savings or money market account.

Pay down high-interest student loans. If you had private loans with interest rates over 8%, find out whether you can refinance them at a lower rate. If not, consider paying extra principal to burn that costly debt more quickly. Don’t race to pay off lower-interest student loans; the interest on them may be tax deductible, and there are better places to put extra cash.

Buy experiences, not things. Still have some money left? Fly across the country to attend your college roommate’s wedding. Take road trips with friends. Spend money to join a sports team, theater group, or fantasy football league. Focus your finances on making memories, not acquiring things—academic research holds that you get more happiness for the dollar by doing that, and you’ll probably be moving soon anyway.

Buy a couch. For now, make this the bottom of your list. Sure, everyone needs a place to sit, but there’s nothing wrong with living like a student just a little bit longer. If you defer expensive things for a few years while you put money towards all the higher priorities on this list, you’ll be sitting pretty in the future.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify that Roth IRA holders can withdraw their own contributions at any time and do not have to wait until the account is five years old.

MONEY Food & Drink

What You Should Know About the Shake Shack IPO

Shake Shack in Madison Square Park in New York City.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Should you get in on a hot new restaurant IPO that's almost guaranteed to generate double-digit revenue growth for years to come? It's tempting in theory, but no-brainer IPOs don't always pay off.

Last week, Shake Shack, a popular New York City-based burger joint, announced that it has decided to go public. If the reception to the news on Twitter and throughout the financial media is any indication, it will be a highly coveted affair.

Founded in 2001 as a hot-dog cart in New York’s Madison Square Park, the concept has expanded to 63 physical locations, 32 of which are licensed to domestic and international operators. Meanwhile, its systemwide sales have gone from $21 million in 2010 to $140 million in 2013.

It goes without saying that there is phenomenal potential for a company like this. Yet determining whether such potential will translate into outsized returns for early investors is far from obvious.

According to Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing and author of The Intelligent Investor, the answer is generally no:

Our one recommendation is that all investors should be wary of new issues — which means, simply, that these should be subjected to careful examination and unusually severe tests before they are purchased.

The data on IPOs

While the data on the performance of IPOs isn’t conclusive, it tends to support Graham’s warning. Over the past five years, for instance, a composite of IPOs compiled by Renaissance Capital has returned a total of 124%, compared with the S&P 500’s 132%.

And data curated by Professor Jay Ritter at the University of Florida leads to the same conclusion. Between 1970 and 2012, Ritter found that IPOs underperformed similarly sized publicly traded companies in the first, second, third, and fifth years after listing. The only outlier, for reasons not immediately apparent, was the fourth year, in which the cumulative return of newly listed companies exceeded that of their similarly sized competitors by 1.8%.

This isn’t to say that the data speaks unanimously against IPOs, as there is conflicting evidence that suggests the opposite. Most notably, an IPO index designed by First Trust, a money management firm headquartered near Chicago, has returned a total of 150% since 2006 versus the S&P 500’s total return of 92%.

And, of course, it’s hard to ignore the companies that have gone public and seen their shares soar. Digital-camera maker GoPro, which listed in the middle of last year amid its own flurry of media attention and excitement, serves as a case in point. Since opening at $28.65 a share on June 26, its stock has more than doubled in price and currently trades for more than $65 a share.

The issue with IPOs, in turn, isn’t that none of them pay off. As GoPro and others have demonstrated, some do. The issue instead is that they aren’t designed to do so — or, at least, not for the individual investor.

IPOs and the lemon problem

In the first case, you have the so-called lemon problem. When a company goes public, the people selling their shares know a lot more about it than you do. It’s akin to buying a used car, where the seller has intimate knowledge about the vehicle’s infirmities while the buyer must decide after only a brief test drive and cursory inspection.

Fueling this situation is the fact that many companies going public nowadays were previously controlled by private equity firms. That matters, because the fundamental business model of such firms is to extract the value from a company before unloading its shares onto the public markets.

Caesars Entertainment CAESARS ENTERT CP COM USD0.01 CZR 1.18% is a textbook example. When the casino giant was taken public by its private equity handlers in 2012, it was laden down with $20 billion in debt. After subtracting intangible assets, Caesars was left with a tangible book value of negative $7 billion.

Fast-forward to today, and Caesars’ interest payments have become unsustainable. In the first nine months of last year, servicing its debt consumed nearly half of the casino’s total gambling revenues, leading to a $2.1 billion loss from continuing operations. Thus, it’s no coincidence that Caesars is on the verge of putting its largest operating unit into bankruptcy as soon as this month.

Stacking the deck against individual investors

But even if the lemon problem wasn’t an issue, individual investors would still be at a disadvantage when it comes to IPOs: Investment banks, which shepherd companies through the process, have a vested interest in maximizing the price of a company’s newly issued shares, regardless of value.

Taking companies public is a lucrative and competitive business on Wall Street. And while investment banks wouldn’t admit to it, one way they compete against each other for that business is by proffering the services of their research analysts — that is, the people who are tasked with educating investors about the value of publicly traded companies.

A recent enforcement action by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority gave a rare insight into that process for investors. At the beginning of last month, FINRA fined 10 banks between $2.5 million and $5 million each for “allowing their equity research analysts to solicit investment banking business and for offering favorable research coverage in connection with the 2010 planned initial public offering of Toys “R” Us”.

In effect, the investment banks told Toys “R” Us and its private-equity owners that, if awarded the business, their research analysts would publish favorable reports about the retailer’s value to sway investors and, by doing so, potentially inflate its stock price. It was the same thing many of the same firms did around the turn of the century, when their analysts pumped degenerate Internet stocks such as Pets.com and Webvan.com.

The net result is that it’s difficult for an individual investor to get an objective assessment of the value of a newly listed company. And it’s for this reason that investing in them calls for, in Graham’s words, a “special degree of sales resistance.”

The unfavorable timing of IPOs

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on the issue of timing. It’s common sense that companies prefer to go public when stock valuations are high, as opposed to when they’re low. By doing so, the sellers are more likely to get a price that’s favorable to them and, concomitantly, less favorable to individual investors.

The data bears out that reality. In the lofty market of 2005 to 2007, an average of 200 companies went public each year. The number fell to only 31 after stocks plunged in 2008. Since then, the annual IPO volume has steadily increased with the market, topping out for the moment in 2014 as stocks soared to unprecedented heights.

In sum, when you add timing to the lemon problem as well as the conflict-of-interest issue that leads investment banks to inflate the value of newly issued stocks, it should be obvious that investing in this area is, to put it mildly, fraught with peril for the individual investor.

Getting back to Shake Shack

Of course, none of this guarantees that Shake Shack’s IPO will yield substandard returns for the early investor — relative to the broader market, that is. I’ve read more than one compelling analysis of its prospects. It’s a great business. It’s run by a restaurateur with impeccable credentials. Customers love it. And all of these things come through in the burger joint’s growth trajectory.

But at the end of the day, prospective early investors in Shake Shack would be smart to go into it with their eyes wide open. While it could be, and hopefully is, an outright bonanza for anyone who buys in, such an outcome would be in spite of the IPO process and not because of it.

MONEY index funds

The Smart Money is Finally Embracing the Right Way to Invest. You Should Too.

Investors turned their backs on traditional mutual funds in 2014 and began relying more heavily on indexing.

Since launching the Vanguard 500 fund in 1975, Vanguard founder Jack Bogle has been preaching the gospel of indexing — a plain-vanilla, low-cost strategy that calls for buying and holding all the stocks in a market and “settling” for average returns. He’s so fervent that his nickname in the industry is St. Jack.

Forty years laters, investors have finally found religion.

In 2014, the Vanguard Group attracted a record $216 billion of new money, largely on the strength of its index offerings and exchange-traded funds. These are funds that can be traded like individual stocks and that almost always track a market index.

Vanguard wasn’t alone. Blackrock, which runs the well-known iShares brand ETFs, attracted more than $100 billion of new money in 2014, a year in which investors both small and large embraced indexing, also known as “passive” investing.

By comparison, actively managed mutual funds — those that are run by traditional stock and bond pickers — saw net redemptions of nearly $13 billion last year, according to the fund tracker Morningstar.

There’s are several simple reasons for this:

1) Fund inflows generally follow recent performance.
And in 2014, the S&P 500 index of stocks outperformed roughly 80% of actively managed funds, noted Michael Rawson, an analyst with Morningstar.

He added: “When the market rallies strong, a lot of active managers tend to lag, maybe because they’re being more conservative, holding more quality stocks, or maybe holding a little bit of a cash — it is common for an active manager to hold some cash. So it’s difficult to keep up with the rising market.”

2) 2014 was a year when many heavy hitters espoused their preference for indexing.
In August, MONEY’s Ian Salisbury reported how the influential pension fund known as Calpers — the California Public Employees’ Retirement System — was openly considering reducing its use of actively managed strategies for its clients.

This came on the heels of a provocative column written by a Morningstar insider questioning whether actively managed strategies had a future. “To cut to the chase,” wrote Morningstar’s John Rekenthaler, “apparently not much.”

And as MONEY’s Pat Regnier pointed out in a fascinating piece on Warren Buffett’s investing approach, the Oracle of Omaha noted in his most recent shareholder letter that his will “leaves instructions for his trustees to invest in an S&P 500 index fund.”

3) Plus, new research from Standard & Poor’s shows that even if active managers can beat the indexes, they can’t do that consistently over time.

The report, which was published in December, noted that “When it comes to the active versus passive debate, the true measurement of successful active management lies in the ability of a manager or a strategy to deliver above-average returns consistently over multiple periods. Demonstrating the ability to outperform repeatedly is the only proven way to differentiate a manager’s luck from skill.”

Yet according to Aye Soe, S&P’s senior director of global research and design, “relatively few funds can consistently stay at the top.”

Indeed, only 9.84% of U.S. stock funds managed to stay in the top quartile of performance over three consecutive years, according to S&P. This is presumably because over time, the higher fees and trading costs that actively managed funds trigger become too difficult for even the most seasoned managers to overcome.

Even worse, just 1.27% of domestic equity portfolios were able to stay in the top 25% of their peers for five straight years. For those funds that specialize in blue chip stocks, the numbers were even worse. Of the 257 large-cap funds that finished in the top quartile of their peers starting in September 2010, less than half of 1% remained in the top quartile for each of the subsequent 12-month periods through September 2014.

As Soe puts it, this “paints a negative picture regarding the lack of long-term persistence in mutual fund returns.”

MONEY retirement planning

3 Simple Steps to Crash-Proof Your Retirement Plan

piggy bank surrounded by styrofoam peanuts
Thomas J. Peterson—Getty Images

The recent stock market slide is timely reminder to protect your retirement portfolio from outsized risks. Here's how.

At this point it’s anyone’s guess whether the recent turmoil in the market is just another a speed bump on the road to further gains or the start of a serious setback. But either way, now is an ideal time to ask: Would your retirement plans survive a crash?

The three-step crash-test below can give you a sense of how your retirement plans might fare during a major market downturn, and help you take steps to avert disaster. I recommend you do this stress-test now, while you can still make meaningful adjustments, rather than waiting until a crisis actually hits—and wishing you’d taken action beforehand.

1. Confirm your asset allocation. The idea here is to divide your portfolio into two broad categories: stocks and bonds. (You can create a third category, cash equivalents, if you wish, or throw cash into the bond category. For the purposes of this kind of review, either way is fine.)

For most of your holdings this exercise should be fairly simple. Stocks as well as mutual funds and ETFs that invest in stocks (dividend stocks, preferred shares, REITs and the like) go into the stock category. All bonds, bond funds and bond ETFs go into the bond category. If you own funds or ETFs that include both stocks and bonds—target-date funds, balanced funds, equity-income funds, etc.—plug their name or ticker symbol into Morningstar’s Instant X-Ray tool and you’ll get a stocks-bonds breakdown. Once you’ve divvied up your holdings this way, you can easily calculate the percentage of your nest egg that’s invested in stocks and in bonds.

2. Estimate the downside. It’s impossible to know exactly how your investments will perform in a major meltdown. But you can at least estimate the potential hit based on how your portfolio would have fared in past severe setbacks.

In the financial crisis year of 2008, for example, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index lost 37% of its value, while the broad bond market gained just over 5%. So if you’ve got 70% of your retirement portfolio in stocks and 30% in bonds, you can figure that in a comparable downturn your nest egg would lose roughly 25% of its value (70% of -37% plus 30% of 5% equals 24.4%—we’ll call it 25%). If your portfolio consists of a 50-50 mix of stocks and bonds, its value would drop about 15%.

Remember, you’re not trying to predict precisely how the market will perform during the next crash. You just want to make a reasonable estimate of what kind of hit your retirement savings might take so you can get an idea of what size nest egg you may end up with when things get ugly.

3. Assess the impact on your retirement. Go to a retirement income calculator that uses Monte Carlo simulations and enter your nest egg’s current value as well as such information as your age, income, when you plan retire, how your savings are invested and how much you’re saving each year (or spending, if you’re already retired). You’ll come away with the percentage chance that you’ll be able to generate the income you’ll need throughout retirement based on things as they stand now. Consider this your “before crash” estimate. Then, get an “after crash” estimate by plugging in the same info, but substituting your nest egg’s projected value after a downturn from step 2 above.

You’ll now be able to gauge the potential impact of a market crash on your retirement prospects. For example, if you’re 45, earn $80,000 a year, contribute 10% of pay to a 401(k) 70% in stocks and 30% in bonds that has a current balance of $350,000, you have roughly a 70% chance of being able to retire on 75% of pre-retirement salary, according to T. Rowe Price’s Retirement Income Calculator. Were your portfolio’s value were to drop 25% to $262,500 in a crash, your probability of retirement success would fall to 55% or so.

Once you see how a major setback might affect your retirement prospects, you can consider ways to protect yourself. For someone like our fictional 45-year-old above, switching to a more conservative portfolio probably isn’t the answer since doing so would also lower long-term returns, perhaps reducing the odds of success even more. Rather, a better course would be to consider saving more. And, in fact, by boosting the savings rate from 10% to 15%, the level recommended by many pros as a reasonable target, the post-crash probability of success rises almost to where it was originally.

If you’re closer to or already in retirement, however, the proper response to a precipitous drop in the odds of retirement success could be to invest more cautiously, perhaps by devoting a portion of your nest egg to an annuity that can generate steady, assured income. Or you may want to maintain your current investing strategy and focus instead on ways you can cut spending, should it become necessary, so you can withdraw less from your portfolio until the markets recover.

Truth is, there’s a whole range of actions you might take—or at least consider—that could put you in a better position to weather a market crash (or, for that matter, provide a measure of protection against other setbacks, such as job loss or health problems). But unless you go through this sort of stress test, you can’t really know what effect a big market setback might have on your retirement plans, or what steps might be most effective.

So run a scenario or two (or three) now to see how you fare, assuming different magnitudes of losses and different responses. Or you can just wait until the you know what hits the fan, and then scramble as best you can.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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