Life is chock-full of worry. Indeed, since you made it to living, breathing adulthood, you're probably very good at it by now.
Gone are the days when we looked forward to three-month summer vacations that involved little more than sleeping, swimming, and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (at least 30 minutes before swimming, naturally). Now summer just means we have to mow the lawn more often and worry about cutting our toes off with the edger. Good times.
OK, so it's not all bad -- we grown-ups still have our fair share of fun. But I imagine you're getting the idea here: Between figuring out whether we're supposed to be picking up Bobby from piano lessons or Suzy from soccer practice and remembering whether we fed the dog so he wouldn't eat the cat, we have enough to worry about. And this is why it stuns me that a great number of people have chosen to create portfolios that are bound to land at the top of the worry list.
Stewing up a fresh pot of worry
It began innocently enough in the 1980s or early '90s, with a few mutual funds in your employer's 401(k) plan. Then the mid-'90s came and you felt you'd gained enough experience to pick up a few large caps here and there -- probably through a discount broker. Finally, the late '90s came and by then you considered yourself a pro, so you felt completely safe hopping willy-nilly into tech, small caps, and Internet stocks. But then the reckoning came, and you discovered there was more worrying involved in this whole investing thing than you thought.
Fair enough, but you'll find value in mistakes only when you learn from them. It seems, however, that the recovery in some of these speculative names in the past two years has led many investors to forget the painful lessons of the late '90s and early 2000s.
I can't believe the number of folks I bump into who tell me they're still sitting on piles of Lucent and JDS Uniphase -- apparently waiting for the glory days to return -- particularly since most of them can't even explain exactly what these companies do.
The huge rally in small-cap stocks that's taken place over the past several years has also led plenty of people to bet as much as 90% of their portfolios on this volatile sector. Suffice it to say that none of these folks is standing in the worry-free zone.
Just say no worries
So how do you lower your blood pressure and raise your investing prospects at the same time? Going after tried-and-true blue-chip stocks -- namely, blue-chip dividend payers. This is the key to lowering risk and making outsized returns over the long haul.
"Yeah, but Lucent and JDS Uniphase are the blue chips of the tech sector," some say. "So what's wrong with them?" First, Lucent and JDS Uniphase are not the blue chips of the tech sector -- or any sector for that matter. IBM, United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) , and 3M (NYSE: MMM ) -- cash-rich dividend payers with long histories of innovation -- are.
But that's really beside the point. Lucent and JDS Uniphase have their problems, but the No. 1 reason they're inappropriate for most portfolios is that the vast majority of investors don't understand what these companies do or how they make money. If you can't grasp those two things about a company -- any company -- you shouldn't own its stock.
"But small caps can't be bad for me," others say. "They've outperformed large- and mid-cap stocks over the years." Well, that might be true in the sense that some studies suggest that small caps have outperformed the S&P 500 over time. But it might surprise you to learn that large-cap dividend-paying stocks outperformed the S&P 500 by just as wide a margin, and they did so with far less volatility.
The real problem with small, upstart companies is that very few people can tell you hands down who the winners are going to be. For example, who can honestly say whether Baidu.com (Nasdaq: BIDU ) or Sohu.com (Nasdaq: SOHU ) will win the battle for Chinese Internet search provider? Maybe there's room for two winners, akin to a Nike (NYSE: NKE ) and adidas-Salomon situation where both companies continue to grow and profit. Sportswear retailing is clearly not a zero-sum game. But who knows what the future holds in the Chinese Internet arena? It's possible that neither will win, and a Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) or some other company will simply come along and snatch up assets on the cheap once the first movers have declared bankruptcy.
The fact is, I can look at very few of these companies and say without a doubt that they'll be around in 20 years. Granted, blow-ups happen in blue-chip country as well, but your chances of stepping on a land mine in this neck of the woods are far lower. Suffice it to say that I'll eat my hat if Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) isn't around -- in one form or another -- in 20 years. Its size, reach, and customer loyalty make it nearly indestructible. Sure, it could buy up its rivals and change its name to Bank of the Milky Way, but it'll be around.
The Foolish bottom line
So how do you find these blue-chip, dividend-paying winners? Well, that's the beauty of it -- many of them are hiding in plain sight. They are the venerable companies that have been around for years generating cash -- the ones you do business with every day.
Still, if you need a nudge in the right direction, I author the Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter. There you'll find the best dividend growth and value opportunities available among top-quality companies today. Click here to be my guest at the service free for 30 days. You'll enjoy access to all of my past recommendations, which are beating the market while providing a 4.5% dividend yield on average.
My research is built around the philosophy that a low-risk, high-quality portfolio is the way to a bright, worry-free financial future. We already have plenty of things to worry about, after all. We have bills to pay, lawns to water, and emails to answer. (Indeed, I just received a high priority message from General Salazar. The general's family has been forced into hiding by rebels, and he needs my bank account number to get their millions out of the country. Tragic, but I digress.)
Our investments should not keep us up at night, and building a portfolio of companies that will be there when we wake up in the morning is a good way to prevent it. Besides, when you stop worrying yourself sick over your stocks, you'll have a lot more time to do all the other things you need to do -- which I hope won't include having your bank account drained by General Salazar.
This article was originally published on July 18, 2005. It has been updated.
Mathew Emmertwonders whether throwing in his credit card number would help bring stability to the General's region. Perhaps not. He owns shares of Bank of America and is the chief analyst ofMotley Fool Income Investor(Mathew, not General Salazar). 3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation, and Bank of America is an Income Investor recommendation. The Fool has a foolproofdisclosure policy.