(Money Magazine) -- I've been writing about investing for nearly a quarter of a century. And if I've learned one thing after counseling Money readers through three recessions, three stock market crashes, and two derivatives debacles (yes, two: 14 years before the recent flare-up with mortgage-backed securities, derivatives tripped up several government income and money-market funds), it's this: Savvy investing need not be complicated. Just focus on what's most important to stay on the path to financial success and filter out all the noise along the way.
To do just that, follow this four-step program:
Cable-TV investing shows may make you feel like a slouch if you're not constantly searching for hot new investments. But I've seen too many Next Big Things turn into the Next Big Letdowns -- limited partnerships in the '80s and, recently, mutual funds that replicate hedge fund strategies, to name two.
In reality, smart investing is more about assembling a group of tried-and-true assets that give you diversification than trying to predict tomorrow's top gainers. "I'd rather have mediocre funds in the right mix of categories than great funds without an underlying allocation strategy," says Charlottesville, Va., financial planner David Marotta.
The reason is that asset classes, more than individual picks, drive your long-term returns. Creating a well-rounded portfolio isn't that hard. Marotta figures you need only five or six funds that cover key assets such as large and small U.S. stocks, foreign shares, and bonds -- plus maybe another that invests in natural resources, real estate, or other inflation hedges.
Birthdays and anniversaries are the milestones of our lives. So it's not surprising that we tend to think in annual terms when gauging our portfolios. Yet it's dangerous to think of investing as a sprint rather than a marathon.
Why? If you're seeking the best gains over the next 12 months, you'll naturally gravitate toward more volatile investments because they'll give you a better shot at big short-term gains. But your odds of picking those winners year in and year out are extremely slim.
"It's like someone on a hot streak at the roulette wheel," says York University finance professor Moshe Milevsky. "You know it's not going to last." What's more likely to happen is that you'll end up in investments that go down just as quickly as they went up.
When was the last time you heard someone brag about his razor-thin mutual fund expenses? Probably never. That's because high returns are a lot sexier than low fees.
Still, you're better off paying as much attention, if not more, to what your funds charge than to past performance. "The probability of a manager outperforming going forward is small," says Financial Engines chief investment officer Christopher Jones. "But fees are far more predictable." And remember that every dollar you pay in fees reduces the returns you get to keep -- and that can add up over the long haul.
To gauge the effect of costs, I used Morningstar's database to sort all large-cap stock funds with 15-year records into four groups, based on expenses. I then compared each group's average annualized 15-year returns. Result: The higher a group's fees, the lower its average return. This mirrors an analysis that Burton Malkiel and Charles Ellis (two heavyweights in the investing world) include in their new book, The Elements of Investing.
During my career at Money, I've seen stock prices fall more than 20% in a single day (Oct. 19, 1987) and twice drop by roughly half over longer periods (March 2000 to October 2002 and October 2007 to March 2009).
But if those crashes led to similarly steep losses in your portfolio, you can't blame the market entirely for your misfortune. More often than not, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in the markets, but in ourselves. When things are going well we tend to get overconfident and plow more money than we should into risky assets, making us overly vulnerable to downturns. And when a setback inevitably arrives, says Santa Clara University economist Hersh Shefrin, "We bail out and focus so much on safety that we're not positioned to capture gains when the market turns around, which it typically does very quickly."
Rather than swinging between euphoria in up markets and depression in down ones, you're better off keeping your emotions -- and strategy -- on an even keel. Granted, achieving that Zen-like outlook is easier said than done. But the more you can maintain your equanimity and resist Wall Street's entreaties to fiddle with your investments, the fewer mistakes you'll make -- and the more wealth you'll end up with in the long run.
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