When Should You Buy Stocks?

John C. Bogle is the founder and retired CEO of The Vanguard Group, the largest mutual fund organization in the world, comprising more than 160 mutual funds with current assets totaling more than $1.4 trillion. Since his retirement from Vanguard in 1996, Bogle has spent his time studying, writing, and speaking on the financial markets and mutual funds. He is president of the Bogle Financial Markets Research Center, created in 2000 to support his ongoing work on behalf of investors.

Tom Gardner was raised to choose and invest in stocks, but Bogle advises starting with a "serious money" account -- an index fund and maybe some bonds -- and leaving it completely alone for 50 years. The stocks, he says, are more of a frivolity and should be a side bet.

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Tom Gardner: Let's take the family that I was raised in, which taught us from a relatively early age to buy stocks directly. I'll make the argument on behalf of it. Then one of our members, Neil, wants to know what you think of that argument -- where you see strengths and weaknesses to it -- and feel free to knock it down entirely. You'll just be knocking my whole life to the ground if you do!

Jack Bogle: Oh, will I really be doing that?

Gardner: No!

We were raised in a family and taught to invest in stocks. It was a low-cost alternative, a one-time payment. I guess one of the primary pieces of advice I give to any investor who's buying stocks is "Double your holding period right now" -- and if you want to do it, right after you've done that, double it again -- because just as with a great fund, a great business should be held over at least five years to really see the value of that organization play out in the marketplace.

We were taught to buy stocks -- the low-cost, one-time transaction; find the great businesses with a great leader. Howard Schultz has been in Starbucks, John Mackey at Whole Foods; these businesses have compounded incredible returns since they became public 20 years ago. Hitch your wagon to the stars of these really great, often consumer-facing, businesses that we can follow.

You have to do a lot of numerical work and valuation, etc., but that's how we've been building our portfolios in our family.

Neil wants to know when it is appropriate, in your opinion, for an individual to buy stocks? Is there a level of expertise or interest? An amount of time you should have, or capital? Or should it be a side frivolity in a base portfolio of index funds?

Bogle: That last sentence captures it best.

That is, you should have a serious money account -- I might even call it a boring money account -- where you put money in a stock market index fund and balance it a little bit with some bonds, depending on age and so on, and don't look at it. Don't look at it for 50 years. Don't peek.

But when you retire, open the envelope. Be sure a doctor is nearby to revive you. You'll go into a dead faint. You can't believe there's that much money in the world. That's where we fool ourselves. That's a serious money, boring money account.

We have a gambling culture here in this country. Maybe every country does. You see it in its finest manifestation -- or maybe I should say worst manifestation -- in the state lotteries. Las Vegas contributes its share. The races contribute their share, the track.

All of these are just gambling, where a whole lot of people bet their money, and a whole lot of people take their money out and the croupier wins. The house wins.

Gardner: Three to 20 percent of whatever has been bet.

Bogle: Of whatever it is ...

Gardner: You put a dollar in, you're going to lose ...


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