With all of the volatility in the stock market over the past several years, it can be difficult to determine how to devise an investment strategy to help achieve your financial goals. To help you determine a reasonable rate of return to expect on your stock investments, it might be helpful to review some "facts" about the stock market:
- The stock market's historical return can change dramatically depending on the period considered.
For instance, from 1926 to 2004 (79 years), the average return for the stock market as measured by the Standard & Poor's 500 (S&P 500) was 10.4%. Change that period to 1955 to 2004 (50 years) and the return changes to 10.9%, 13.5% from 1980 to 2004 (25 years), and 12.1% from 1995 to 2004 (10 years).*
- The market tends to revert to the mean.
There is a tendency for the stock market, when it has an extended period of above- or below-average returns, to revert back to the average return. Thus, following an extended period of above-average returns in the 1990s, the stock market experienced a significant downturn, helping to bring the averages back in line.
- History may not be a good predictor of future returns.
The expected rate of return for your investment program is typically based on an analysis of past returns, since no one can predict future returns. However, it's important to realize that those returns may not be replicated in the future. During much of the stock market's history, the United States was in a substantial growth phase as it grew from a struggling nation into a superpower. Growth in the future may not approach those levels, which could dampen stock returns.
- The pattern of actual returns affects your investment balance.
Even if you get the average rate of return exactly right, your portfolio's balance will depend on the pattern of actual returns during that period. Some years will experience higher-than-average returns, while other years will have lower or even negative returns. If you experience high returns in the early years, your portfolio's value will be lower than if those returns occurred in the later years. If you encounter negative returns in the early years, you will have a higher balance than if those negative returns came in the later years.
- Historical returns do not include several items that investors must deal with.
Two of the most significant items not accounted for in historical returns are inflation and taxes. Over the long term, from 1926 to 2004, inflation averaged 3.0%.* Short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income tax rates of up to 35%, while long-term capital gains and dividend income are taxed at 15% (5% for taxpayers in the 10% or 15% tax bracket).
- Investors have a difficult time earning historical returns.
Several studies found that investors' returns tend to lag the overall market. A recent study found that investors in the New York and American stock exchanges experienced annual returns that were 1.3% lower than market returns from 1926 to 2002, while Nasdaq investors experienced annual returns that were 5.3% lower from 1973 to 2002 (Source: Money, September 2004).
What does all this mean to an investor? When designing an investment program, use a conservative estimated rate of return, since it may be difficult to earn the historical returns of the past. It's easier to start out with a lower rate of return and find out later that your actual return is higher, which means you just need to save less.
Consider these strategies:
- Save more of your income.
If you can't count on returns to provide growth in your portfolio, you should compensate by saving more of your income. That may mean you'll need to work overtime or take on a second job to provide additional income. Another strategy is to reduce your living expenses and save the reductions.
- Invest in a tax-efficient manner.
Taxes are often a significant investment expense, so using strategies to defer the payment of taxes can make a substantial difference in your portfolio's ultimate size. Utilize tax-deferred investment vehicles, such as 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts, which defer the payment of taxes until withdrawn. Or emphasize investments generating capital gains or dividend income rather than ordinary income. Minimize turnover in your portfolio, so unrealized gains can grow for many years.
- Adequately diversify your investment portfolio.
Typically, you do not know which asset class will perform best on a year-to-year basis. Diversification is a defensive strategy - it helps protect your portfolio during market downturns and helps reduce your portfolio's volatility. Diversify your investment portfolio among a variety of investment categories, such as stocks, bonds, cash, real estate, and other alternatives. Also diversify within investment categories.
- Consider international investments.
Since U.S. stocks have outperformed international stocks for an extended period, international investments have gone out of favor. But no one knows whether this trend will continue in the future, so it may be prudent to include international investments in your portfolio. Before investing in international stocks, assess how much of your portfolio to allocate to this asset class. Keep in mind that international investing may not be suitable for everyone. In addition to the risks associated with domestic investing, international investing has unique risks, including currency fluctuations, political and social changes, and greater share price volatility.
- Evaluate your portfolio's performance annually.
That way, if returns are lower than you targeted, you can make adjustments to your strategy to compensate for these variations in return.
* Source: Stocks, Bonds, Bills, and Inflation 2005 Yearbook. The S&P 500 is an unmanaged index generally considered representative of the U.S. stock market. Investors cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.
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