How to be a Buy and Hold Investor

One of the many benefits of running Dough Roller for the past ten years is that the articles act like a diary for me. It’s fun to go back and look at older posts to see what was going on in the world, or my life, at the time. So, I decided to venture all the way back to 2008, looking specifically for investing articles. It was ugly.

There was, What to do when the stock market crashes, which noted that as of October 2008, the S&P 500 was down more than 40%. And then this one, Be a Do-Nothing Investor in a Falling Market?, which included a Washington Post quote from an investing “professional” who said,

Now is not the time to drink the “buy and hold” investment strategy Kool-Aid. Be conservative, limit your risk–and sleep well knowing your investment principal is not going to continue to decline.

Boy was that guy wrong!

A good friend of mine told me that in March 2009, his wife wanted to follow this guy’s advice and pull all their retirement savings from the market. My friend prevailed, they stayed in the market and were up 45% during the remainder of 2009.

So, here’s a stock market prediction for you: It will crash.

Now you probably want to know when it will crash. That, I have no idea. A good economist predicts what or when, but never both. And no, I’m not an economist. However, I am a lawyer, so you can trust me — the market will eventually fall so hard and fast you’ll feel like tossing your cookies. That’s just what it does. The important question, however, is what you do when that happens. (In fact, I even believe that there are three reasons you should cheer a crash!)

What to Do

That long introduction brings us to the point of this not-so-concise article: we need to prepare now, during an up market, for the inevitable down market.

So, what should we be doing? I’m glad you asked. Here are a few suggestions:

Fear the Right Things

Hibah Yousuf and Penelope Wang wrote an article for Money Magazine called “The Young and the Riskless.” The story came with a picture of a young woman, and under her picture was the following: “Caroline Chesnutt was once an enthusiastic investor. Now she shuns the market.”

Here is her story, as reported by Yousuf and Wang:

She started early, at age 24, socking away money in both a taxable account (where she focused on individual companies like Starbucks and Wal-Mart) and a Roth IRA (holding two stock funds). Sure, being 100% in equities was aggressive, but not out of line for her age, and she enjoyed trading several times a month.

Then, in 2008, the bottom fell out of the market. Though her taxable account was unscathed (fortunately she’d sold her shares shortly before to free up cash to buy new stocks), her Roth plummeted 55% by year-end.

Chesnutt quickly closed the trading account and later cashed out the Roth, moving most of her money to two savings accounts (except for a mandatory 401(k) that her employer invests in a target-date fund).

“I don’t want anything to do with stocks,” declares Chesnutt, now 30 and a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “Watching so many people lose all their savings was life altering.”

Chesnutt did exactly, precisely the wrong thing. Had she stayed in the market, she would have more than recouped her losses. Instead, she probably moved her capital into bonds… at exactly, precisely the wrong time.

So, if we shouldn’t fear market losses, what should we be afraid of? Fees, taxes, and inflation. Fear the high fees of some funds. Be mindful of the tax implications of your non-retirement investments. And be deathly afraid that your real return, after accounting for inflation, will be negative.

Give Serious Thought to Your Investment Allocation

Have you ever taken one of these quizzes offered by online brokers, that ask you a series of questions to gauge your tolerance for risk? They include questions like, “If the market fell 50%, you would (a) buy more stocks, (b) do nothing, (c) sell, or (d) curl up into the fetal position and cry like a baby?”

If you want to take one, you can check out Vanguard’s Investor Questionnaire. But there are two important realities about these questionnaires you need to keep in mind:

  1. You’ll never really know how you’ll react to a bear market until you live through one; and
  2. How you’ll react to a down market will change as you get older and your financial picture evolves.

The second point is critical. It’s one thing to lose 40% when you are 25 and have $10,000 invested. It’s a whole different situation to be 55 and have $500,000 invested when the market goes into a free-fall.

Now, a well thought out asset allocation plan will help you get through the down markets, both psychologically and financially. The key is to settling on a plan that works in good markets and in bad.

Resource: How to Rebalance a Portfolio

This takes some honest thinking about how you will react in a down market. Experienced investors should already know how they’ll handle a falling market; new investors will learn sooner or later. And if you are new to investing, I’d highly recommend Richard Ferri’s book, All About Asset Allocation. It’s a must read. And you should also check out the SEC’s Beginners’ Guide to Asset Allocation, Diversification, and Rebalancing.

Invest for a Falling Market

This is one of the most important concepts that many investors never consider. An example is the best way to explain it.

Early in my investing career, I bought shares of Bill Miller’s Legg Mason Value Trust (LMVTX). I began investing in LMVTX because it was a value fund. And as it turned out, the investment worked out very well for me. As some of you may recall, Bill Miller beat the S&P 500 with this fund for about 15 years running. I sold at about year 12. Why?

I determined that if the fund started to drop well below the S&P 500, I’d be too tempted to sell. And selling in a down market is the LAST thing I want to do. The issue here wasn’t just that LMVTX is an active fund, but also because of its expense ratio (currently 1.76%). I still own actively managed funds, but their costs are much lower.

Now, I could point to 2008 when LMVTX experienced significant loses, wiping out its gains of the past 15+ years. But that’s not the point! In fact, 2008 could have been the best time to buy LMVTX. The point is that LMVTX is not the type of investment I’m willing to stick with through good times and bad. It’s just too expensive. (If you are interested in the LMVTX story, Tom Lauricella from the WSJ wrote a great piece on Bill Miller back in 2008.)

So now that we are in an up market, take a good, hard look at your investments and ask yourself the following question: Would I stick with these investments if they dropped 30% this year? If the answer is no, you need to rethink your investments NOW, not when the market drops.

Get Out of Debt

This last tip is critical. Getting out of debt is the only way to truly take advantage of your investments, without making emotional decisions. Not to mention all of the other benefits, like not wasting money on interest or having funds tied up to payments each month.

When we have too much debt, it can cause us to make bad investing and business decisions. It’s one thing to see the market going down; it’s another to watch your investments fall while you’re sitting on high-interest credit card debt and a mortgage you can’t afford. I’ve seen the same problem with folks in highly leveraged real estate deals.

I’ve been fortunate in that my wife and I have very little debt. My online businesses have zero debt, the mortgages on our rental properties are very manageable and more than covered by rent, and the only personal debt we have is a mortgage. This allows us to make investing and business decisions that aren’t based on cash flow issues or a need for capital. It may take time to get there (it did for us), but it’s well worth the effort.

Prepare Now

Investing isn’t much different from any other aspect of personal finance if you think about it. It’s all about being prepared.

We save up a couple months’ expenses in an emergency fund, just in case something unexpected comes crashing down on us. We pay insurance premiums on the off chance that we break a leg or rear-end a brand new Mercedes. So, why wouldn’t we also prepare for the worst case scenario with our investments?

Knowing that the market does wax and wane and that it WILL crash again, can help you reevaluate your allocations. It can also allow you to truly prepare and head off any emotional reactions you may be tempted to have.

If you have any tips on how to survive a falling market, or how you’re preparing for one now, please share them in the comments below.

Listen to my podcast on the Ultimate Buy and Hold Portfolio:


Topics: Investing

5 Responses to “How to be a Buy and Hold Investor”

  1. Matt Miller

    Bill Miller looked like a genius until he didn’t in late 08 when he was holding a ton of bank stocks. I felt sorry for the guy at the time but the market has a way of making us all humble.

  2. I have 50% in stocks 30 in cash and 20% in bonds. I too feel that the market will fall, at which time I will probably buy more into an index stock fund. I am currently 70 not retired yet but plan to do so in a few years. Till then I will continue to fund my 401/k at that same allocation. I know that once I retired I will need to take RMD this should come from the money market fund I currently have not from stocks. The market will go back up and if not during my life time, it will remain there for my heirs.

  3. This is an excellent article. I cannot tell you how important I think this advice is for people. I have seen way too much advice being given out about 100% stock funds are the way to go and worries about 10 basis points in fees while ignoring the top cause for bad performance is actually investor behavior. There was an old article that you published about betterment and commented about its fees. Jon Stein (their ceo) replied to it and made a strong point that many people say they can do better on their own and will adjust their portfolio in a logical manner, but the data proves otherwise. This is a fact that is very under reported. When things are ugly, they don’t happen in isolation. People are inherently emotional beings and if people do not adjust their lifestyle, debt and investment in the good times, they are taking outsized risks to fail in the inevitable bad times which will more than reverse any asset location, asset tilt, or 10 basis point savings can ever make up for. Thanks for the reminder and I hope more people will pay attention to this.

  4. Mr. Berger,

    I’m excited to read the book you recommend in this article. Can you please tell me your opinion on this amazon review of said book?

    “It would be a great book on asset allocation if the markets were not highly intervened today
    ByMatton July 11, 2012
    Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
    I’ve read several books on asset allocation and this is the best I’ve found. But once you realize how intervened markets are these days, this book makes no sense any more.

    For example, take the standard advice, also echoed in this book: invest you age in stocks and the rest in bonds. Fair enough. Say you’re 30. Then you invest 30% in bonds, maybe 30-year treasuries (you figure you won’t need this money for 30 years). Because no-one has a clue as to what the market will do next, this book contents, then you’re just fine following this advice to invest 30% in bonds, because you have no way of knowing whether bonds will fall or go up in price and whether another investment would have made more sense than bonds (because of the Efficient Market Hypothesis). Sounds soothing. But it’s actually very dangerous advice, when you realize that it’s all built on false premises!

    For example, the Fed has set interest rates at near zero, and during QE2 actively bought US treasuries to take the yield down. Then with Operation Twist bought long-dated treasuries while selling short-dated treasuries. Today 30-year treasuries yield 2.6%. This is almost record low yield. There is almost no feasible way for the yield on treasuries to remain this low for the next 30 years. It is bound to go up. And when it inevitably does, your 30-year bonds will sink in price.

    To sum up, if government intervention in the markets were neglegible, then I would give this book 5 stars for its analysis of asset allocation. However, that’s not the case”

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