How much do I initially have to invest? How much can I afford to consistently add later?
Einstein described compounding as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” and for good reason. Being able to earn interest on your interest allows investments to increase exponentially faster than with simple interest. A one-time investment of $5000 earning 10% interest compounds to a total of over $54,000 after 25 years. Using simple interest, it would take over 95 years to reach the same amount. Naturally, the larger your initial investment and the more you can afford to add later on, the more you can expect to gain in returns.
Am I carrying any high-interest debt, such as on a credit card?
Before saving for future events, you should consider your present finances. Paying off any high-interest loans function as an “automatic” return. Writing a check to Visa to pay down your debt may not feel as satisfying as starting a nest egg, but by eliminating those 22% interest payments, you have effectively “made” a 22% return. Although you need not completely eliminate your debts, getting such payments into a reasonable area should be a more pressing priority.
This fiscal reckoning is also a good time to examine budgeting and expenditures. Look for unneeded or overpriced purchases, and consider the feasibility of paring them down and saving the extra money. Unused gym memberships, that $5 whipped mocha-hazelnut cappuccino, and extra cable channels all add up. The true cost of these and all other purchases involves understanding the “time value of money”, but for now it should suffice to say that $5 added to the previously mentioned investment account compounding 10% for 25 years turns into $54.17.
What is my risk tolerance? What is my investing style?
This question leads us to selecting individual investments. Consider your investment timetable for when you’ll need the money, recognizing that more conservative selections should be made the shorter the window. Everyone’s risk tolerance is different; while one person may feel comfortable with small-cap biotechs another may need a blue chip to feel equally sound.
Analyzing the risk to reward ratio here is a good first step. The more risk you take on, the more you should expect to get in return if your investment pays off. The inverse is also true: the more stable an investment, the less return one should expect. Government-backed I Bonds pay over 6%, but involve tying up money for years in order to fully benefit from them. While this gives you one target, the average return of the broader market indices is about 11% per year. There are two primary schools of thought about investing: growth and value.
Growth investing is a higher-risk strategy which focuses on finding smaller companies poised to rapidly grow earnings. Stocks here tend to be micro-caps or small-caps, and the occasional mid-cap (under $10 billion). In their younger lives, many of the well-established companies of today found themselves considered here (Think of Apple Computers (AAPL) or Starbucks (SBUX)). Growth companies can be found in many different sectors, although such companies often have similar traits. A growth company usually has a unique product or service to offer which can fundamentally change how business is done. When found early enough in their growth cycles, these companies have the potential to return enormous profits to investors.
Value plays usually are found in larger companies, although the strategies used to find them can be applied to smaller corporations as well. Looking for value stocks is similar to looking for values in a store: find a good product at a price below what you would normally expect to pay. These bargains are often found in the form of companies which have been unfairly beaten down through overselling. Finding value stocks usually involves using a discounted cash flow model (DCF) to find a company’s intrinsic value. This is the form of investing advocated by Benjamin Graham, and popularized by Warren Buffett.
GARP, or Growth At Reasonable Price, is a combination of the above forms. As the name implies, the focus is finding growing companies trading at reasonable prices. Quick measures of this include the PEG ratio (Price to Earnings to Growth) and Forward P/E. Although not a specific style, GARP is utilized by many investors because of its flexibility. The average, diversified portfolio will have many GARP-type stocks in it.
Getting Started: Learning the Market and Selecting Stocks
If you were going to spend several thousand dollars on a refrigerator or television, you would thoroughly research the market for those goods to find the product which best suited your needs. Investing is no different. Before buying into a company, you should be well-acquainted enough with it to give a short presentation. Knowing the basics of how a company operates, what it sells, how it makes money, how much money it makes, and what kind of growth the company is expected to experience are all crucial questions that any investor should be able to answer. Developing a better understanding of the stock market is a long, but hopefully rewarding, process.
Immediately investing in stocks with real money, however, is equivalent to taking a test without being introduced to the material. Formerly called “paper trading”, beginning investors would normally spend several months tracking their stock picks without having real money on them. Thanks to technology, you can now find sites that automate (for free) the process of tracking price changes for you on the internet. Simulated investing is a risk-free way of beginning to understand market fluctuations and the forces driving them.
Examining these trends will payoff in the future, as an increased understanding of the stock market can only help you on your path to building wealth. Once you become comfortable picking your own stocks, you can still continue to “paper trade” online, as it offers the opportunity to explore and experiment with other investing styles. Gordon Gekko, the famed villain in Wall Street played by Michael Douglas, said “Information is the most valuable commodity I know of”. Ignoring for a moment that the movie ended with indictments for insider trading, the statement is true: you will not regret being an informed and intelligent investor. The market is constantly changing, but by learning the ropes of investing you too can pull off a “One Up on Wall Street”.