Thursday, July 26, 2007

Buy or Sell When Bulls Come

The Dow has hit three milestones in the past nine months: 12,000 last October, 13,000 in April and 14,000 on July 17.

If you've missed out on some of that lightning-speed run-up, you may feel one of two things:

1.Fear. You're sure if you buy stocks now, they'll tumble soon after, leaving you with a big bill and not much value.

2.Greed. You're in the camp that thinks there's still upside in the near term, so you want to make sure you don't miss the next ride up.
Your best bet: "Ignore what the Dow is doing," said certified financial planner James Whiddon, author of Wealth Without Worry and co-host of "The Investing Revolution" on Dallas-based

Older investors tend to steer clear of high-milestone markets, while younger ones tend to be more eager to jump when they see stocks moving higher, Whiddon said. But no one should be moving in and out of the market on short-term news or trends, and that includes recessions, which typically last eight- to 10 months.

With money you won't need for at least five years, "the best time to be in the market is always now," Whiddon said.

That's because trying to time the market may be more damaging to your portfolio long-term than taking an occasional bath on an investment.

If you're a bear and feel like you want to wait for cheaper stock prices, consider this: For every 20-year and 30-year rolling period since 1926, there have been more up months for stocks than down ones, according to Ibbotson Associates. And even over 10-year rolling periods, there were only two in which the months of negative stock returns exceeded those of positive ones.

Missing out on those high-return months (the timing of which you can't predict) can cost you a lot. A hundred dollars invested from 1926 to 2006 in the S&P 500 would have yielded $307,700, according to Ibbotson. But if you missed the 40 months with the highest returns you would have ended up with - no kidding - $1,823.

Granted, most people don't invest in the market for 80 years straight. But the principle holds over shorter time frames. Had you invested $100 in 1987 straight through 2006 you'd have ended up with $931. Had you been out of the market for the 17 best trading months, however, you'd have just $232.

But if you're a bull, keep in mind that the skeptics aren't crazy. If you hopped into stocks during the peak trading month right before the 1929 crash, you would have gotten a 9.4 percent annual average return through 2006, according to Ibbotson. Not bad, but not as good as the 10.5 percent return you would have gotten if you'd kept your money invested from 1926 through 2006.

You'll always be better off investing when stocks have fallen. Bill Miller, manager of the Legg Mason Value Trust, told Money Magazine's Jason Zweig, "rising stock prices mean lower future rates of return and falling stock prices mean higher rates of return. So I was much happier in the summer of '02 when you buy everything on sale than I was in the spring of 2000 when a lot of things were super-expensive." (Bill Miller speaks...from Money Magazine)

But, of course, you won't be able to predict when those sale days will occur.

So whether your impulse is to throw more money than usual into stocks now or, conversely, to steer clear, this may be one time when it pays to ignore your hunch.

The better step is to make sure you're positioned to benefit whether or not there is more upside to stocks in the near-term. That means keeping your portfolio well diversified, steadily investing the same amount of money every month so you're likely to lower your average costs over time, and rebalancing your portfolio once a year to keep your chosen asset allocation on course. (Get the rebalancing equation right.)

Unless, like Warren Buffett, you were "wired at birth to allocate capital," you might use low-cost index funds to ensure you do as well as the total market over time or, if you're investing for retirement, you might invest in a target-date retirement fund. That type of fund automatically allocates your assets based on how close you are to retiring - the closer you are, the more conservative the allocation becomes

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How to Survive Stock Drops and Profit from Them

Losing money never feels good. But keep things in perspective and you can boost long-term returns.

NEW YORK ( -- You have to admit: Stocks have risen to mighty heights mighty fast. The Dow has hit three milestones in nine months - crossing 12,000 in October, 13,000 in April, and just last week, 14,000.

That was Dr. Jekyll Dow talking. But Mr. Hyde Dow was always lurking.

On Thursday, the leading stock index closed down 311 points, or more than 2 percent, the second biggest point drop this year. The biggest came Feb. 27, when the Dow fell 416 points, or 3.3 percent.

What to make of this? Stocks are volatile. Or more to the point, investors' emotions are.

It takes nerves of steel to shake off a big stock drop. But the world's best investors not only shake them off - they thrive on them. (Bill Miller: 'I'm always happier at market lows')

They know sell-offs are common, perfectly normal, and even healthy. When stocks go way up in a hurry, their prices become unsustainably high. Only by falling occasionally (and even sharply) in the short run can stocks continue to rise in the long run. Without the agony of today's drop, the ecstasy of tomorrow's good returns becomes impossible.

Consider the terrible slide of 1973-74, when the S&P 500 index lost 48 percent of its value. Richard Nixon had resigned the Presidency, oil prices had quadrupled, Cleveland and New York City were on the verge of bankruptcy, and inflation had flared up to 12 percent.

If ever there's been a good time to panic, that had to be it. But as the old saying goes, things are darkest before the dawn. If you'd sold out of stocks at the end of 1974, you would have missed 1975's 37.2 percent return and 1976's 23.8 percent gain - two very strong years for the stock market.

Even after the Dow's wrenching plunge in October 1987, remember that the index actually ended up rising 2 percent in value that year. And it took only 15 months (until January 1989) for the Dow to make its way back above 2246.73, the closing price on the last trading day before Black Monday.

In fact, there's such a thing as paying too much attention to your money. In the late 1980s, Paul Andreassen, a psychologist then at Harvard University, conducted a series of laboratory experiments to determine how investors respond to financial news.

He found that people who pay close attention to news updates actually earn lower returns than people who seldom follow the news.

When you think about this a little more, it actually makes good sense. News coverage tends to make market movements seem even bigger than they are - and to make them seem likely to persist just when they are most likely to reverse.

Take action
Fortunately, there are several simple and effective steps you can take to turn a stock market crash to your advantage.

Amp up your 401(k). Since a down market can be a great time to buy solid investments at bargain prices, contribute as much to your 401(k) as you can, because you'll be picking up more shares for the money, which will pay off when the market rebounds.

If you can't contribute the maximum your plan allows, at the very least contribute as much as is required to receive the company match. Typically, companies match 50 cents on every dollar you contribute, up to 6 percent of your compensation.

That means for each dollar you invest up to 6 percent, your employer adds another 50 cents, instantly transforming your investment into $1.50. This will not only help cushion any fall in stock prices, but it will amplify your gains once the market recovers.

Adjust your risk. A market sell-off is a good time for a gut check. Did the mutual funds you own take too much risk and fall much more than their respective indexes?

Obviously you would have wished you'd known before this decline. But at least you'll know which funds you want to ride into the next one. For a good selection of mutual funds with good risk profiles, see the Money 70, Money Magazine's selection of best funds.

It's also a good time to make sure you have the right mix of stocks and bonds, which can add ballast to a portfolio during downdrafts. Even if you have a lot of years to go, a decent dose of bonds - say 10 to 20 percent - is a good idea: you'll still get a lot of the growth stocks offer without as much volatility.

Determine your deadlines. Ask yourself when you will need the money you've invested. For example, if you have a newborn child, it's a good idea to invest some money to pay college tuition down the road - and you can put most of it in stocks, since 18 years should be long enough for the market to recover from a crash.

But if you're about to make a down payment on your dream house, that money should go in a safer bucket, where a stock market crash can't hurt it; there, you want to hold mainly cash and bonds. Tuesday's drop was relatively small and you can still make those adjustments.

Spread your bets. If all you owned was U.S. stocks or stock funds, the crash has just reminded you that being diversified is the best offensive - and defensive - weapon in any investor's arsenal. Even if you're young and like to take risks, you should have some cash, some bonds, and some foreign stocks, which, over the long run, will combine with your U.S. stocks to lower your risks without crimping your returns.

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