Investment Strategies 2014: How to Invest in Any Market

For investors, 2013 was one of the best years in recent memory. The S&P 500 climbed 29.6%, its best year since 1997, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed just under 30% for its largest one-year jump since 1995.  Even the Nasdaq composite got in on the action, with its 38.3% gain the seventh-largest ever for the index. Finding investment strategies in 2014 that will both protect big gains from last year, while also maximizing return going forward is an important consideration. Let's take a look at a proven strategy that not only may be the best of investment strategies for 2014, but could be the ideal way to invest in any market, in any year. 

You can't time the market; you won't win
The first thing to accept about investing in the stock market is the following four things:

  • The market will go up.
  • The market will go down.
  • It will -- over time -- go up more than it goes down.
  • There's almost no chance you can predict with any level of accuracy when it will do what.

Take a look at this chart for some long-term context:

^SPX Chart
^SPX
data by YCharts

As you can see, there's a lot of volatility in the markets, but historically they go up much more, and more often, than they go down. By my count, since 1985 the market has:

  • Moved up more than 10% within a few months at least 40 times.
  • Moved down more than 10% within a few months at least 24 times.
  • Moved either up or down more than 5% within a few months several dozen times (I stopped counting at 50). 

The bottom line? All of this volatility makes trying to "time" the market a fool's errand. 

You can't avoid bubbles

Source: Brocken Inglory via Wikimedia Commons

Market-collapsing bubbles like the dot-com one of the late '90s and the housing financial crisis we're still emerging from are almost impossible to see coming. Sure, hindsight says we should've seen it, but almost nobody does until it's too late and the crash has started. By trying to sit out the market and wait for the next correction, investors miss out on most of the market's moves upward, convinced that the market will collapse any day, only to see it go up another 50% or more before that 30% fall eventually does happen. 

You can invest in any market
Dollar-cost averaging is a great way to take a lot of the guesswork out of investing, especially for anyone who's regularly (monthly, quarterly) putting new money into a retirement or investment account. Whether you're fresh out of school and just getting started, or only 10 years from retirement, dollar-cost averaging is a simple way for individuals to build wealth by regularly investing into great assets on a fixed schedule. 

How's it work?
The idea behind dollar-cost averaging is simple: Instead of trying to figure out the best price to pay for a stock or ETF, you just start with the company or fund that you've identified as your long-term investment vehicle. ETFs, especially index-based ETFs, are a great vehicle to use, especially for investors who are only able to put away a small amount of money at a time, as they offer broad exposure to multiple companies in multiple industries, providing diversification and protection from a single company carrying too much weight, potentially sinking your returns. 

Take the Rydex S&P Equal Weight ETF  (NYSEMKT: RSP  )  as an  example. This low-cost ETF tracks the S&P 500, but instead of being weighted by market cap, all 500 companies carry equal weight. Here's how this fund has performed compared to the S&P 500 index and SPDR S&P 500 ETF  (NYSEMKT: SPY  ) :

RSP Total Return Price Chart
RSP Total Return Price data by YCharts

As you can see, in total returns (dividends included) RSP has performed admirably, while the SPY SPDR has underperformed its own index. But of course, much of this strong performance is a product of timing. If we stretch the SPY SPDR back to the peak of the 2000 market, returns suffer immensely:

SPY Total Return Price Chart
SPY Total Return Price data by YCharts

RSP wasn't launched until May 2003, so we have to rely on SPY for this exercise. As you can see, money invested nearly three and a half years earlier than the first example netted less than half as much return, all due to timing. How would it have worked out differently for an investor plugging money into SPY every week?

How does 223.7% sound?

For an investor saving $100 per week (close to the maximum for a Roth IRA), the $72,000 invested over the 13 years would be worth more than $161,000 today. If you'd bought $72,000 worth of SPY in March 2000, you'd have $107,000 to show for it -- $54,000 less. 

It's not a sprint
Building wealth takes time -- Warren Buffett has built more than 80% of his personal wealth after turning 50, largely as a product of staying invested and not trying to time the market. Using dollar-cost averaging is a tremendous hedge for investors, and lets you buy in any market condition, and letting time -- the individual investor's best friend -- and the market's inherent volatility do all the heavy lifting. If you're just getting started and don't think you're ready to buy individual stocks, index-tracking ETFs like RSP and SPY are a good place to start. 

Have questions? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 11:51 AM, garlandman wrote:

    Good article, I happen to be very interested in passive ways to potentially beat the S&P, and have been very impressed with RSP. 6 months ago I switched all my investments from ETF's and mutual funds, using an excellent investment newsletter, which involved monthly trades - to RSP. Although this newsletter was slightly underperforming the S&P, the real cincher was the tremendous tax advantage in using an index fund. I roughly estimated that I had to do 3% better annually with the newsletter vs. an S&P index fund, just to be even, due to taxes.

    Also, I have a "worry wart" type personality, and I find it very relaxing not having to constantly analyze and fret over whether the newsletter is outperforming the S&P. It's true that RSP will be more volatile than the S&P, and will underperform from time to time, but I find this volatility very minor.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2014, at 10:34 AM, NightBengal wrote:

    It's important to note that dollar-cost averaging, while an excellent investment option, has one drawback: Trading fees. In the example cited in this article, trading once a week over 13 years at about $8 per trade (some brokerages more, some less) will cost you $5,408 -- or about 10% of that gain over the index fund.

    Add more funds per week and the cost goes up accordingly. Investing directly with the fund company or corporation may be an option, but that may or may not be feasible on a weekly basis. On the other hand, do this in a 401(k) and you're golden - provided it has decent investment options.

    Again, good strategy and good article, but not a strategy without its own downsides.

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