Patient Investors Will Always Win

With the markets hitting new all-time highs in recent weeks, I want to point something out that is literally true: Not a single investor in today's market practicing legitimate buy and hold in a low-cost index fund has ever lost money. Not one.

If you bought at the top of the dot-com bubble in 2000, you're ahead. If you bought at the top in 2007, you're ahead. If you bought the day before 9/11, or just before we all learned that Wall Street was a lit fuse, you are ahead.

That's an extraordinary statistic, isn't it?

It's even more extraordinary when you realize how few investors it applies to. Analytics firm Dalbar gathered data on how the average stock fund investor performed from 1990 to 2010, and compared it to the market index. The results are unsurprising, but thoroughly depressing:

Source: Dalbar.

There are several reasons for this, but the big one is simple. Most investors are not long-term buy-and-holders. They lack the patience and require the thrill of something more. Either they are convinced of their ability to time the market, which usually leads to dismal returns, or they are emotional pendulums, buying at the top and selling out at the bottom of markets, which always leads to dismal returns.

Part of the reason I think so many lack the fortitude to hang on without being shaken out of the market by volatility is a lack of appreciation for how normal volatility is.

Take a look at this chart. The red line is the S&P 500 since 1928. The grey lines mark times when the index began a decline of least 20% from a recent high:

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Since 1928, there are 20 periods of a 20%-or-more decline. The market increased nearly 100-fold during this period, or 140-fold with dividends and inflation factored in.

Think about that. During a period when people made 140 times their money in real terms, they saw at least one-fifth of their wealth melt away 20 times, or once every 4.5 years. Even if you limit it to the post-World War II period, big market drops occur at least once a decade.

The only real difference between buy and holders and the average investor is this:

  • Buy-and-holders view volatility like the flu. Yeah, it's not fun. It can hurt. But you're probably going to get it once a year. When you do, it's not the end of the world. Drink some water. Take a nap. Wait it out. Life will go on, and you'll be healthy before long.
  • Average investors view volatility like Stage IV cancer. Something that shouldn't occur, should be utterly feared, and attacked mercilessly when the most extreme treatments.

That's honestly it. And it applies to those in low-cost index funds and stock-pickers alike. Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) has averaged 12.5% annual returns since 1968, but lost more than 20% of its value six times during that period. If you tried to avoid the latter, you almost certainly missed the former. Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) is up half a million percent since 1965, but as Charlie Munger put it in 2009: "This is the third time that Warren and I have seen our holdings in Berkshire Hathaway go down, top tick to bottom tick, by 50%." He went on:

I think it's in the nature of long term shareholding of the normal vicissitudes, in worldly outcomes, and in markets that the long-term holder has his quoted value of his stocks go down by say 50%. In fact, you can argue that if you're not willing to react with equanimity to a market price decline of 50% two or three times a century you're not fit to be a common shareholder, and you deserve the mediocre result you're going to get compared to the people who do have the temperament, who can be more philosophical about these market fluctuations.

Buy-and-holders are sometimes heckled for being too simplistic, or not astute, or ideologically worshiping a theory that, for some reason, some think has been discredited. But the scores are in: No true buy-and-holder has ever lost money; the vast majority of traders and market timers have. As Tolstoy said, "The two most powerful warriors are patience and time." 


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  • Report this Comment On April 18, 2013, at 11:55 PM, herky46q wrote:

    Nice to get some reassurance of staying in through the thick and thin.

  • Report this Comment On April 19, 2013, at 4:44 PM, DBrown7 wrote:

    Another excellent article, Morgan. Lack of patience is the downfall of most unsuccessful investors. Infinite patience is an attribute of one of the world's most successful investors, Warren Buffett. Its' not the only reason Buffett is a great investor, but is certainly among his most valuable qualities.

  • Report this Comment On April 19, 2013, at 5:01 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    OK Morgan, but the less obvious root cause could use some daylight here. A lot of investors, even those who think they are buy and hold investors simply do not understand themselves well enough. They all think they are brave enough to keep their heads when all others about them are in a panic. Only a few are. Sometimes that is because they are in the wrong investments for them. If I buy APPL because it has great prospects, I can buy cheap and get a good dividend, unless that changes I can buy more with serenity when it goes down. If I am the same guy and set aside my character to buy DDD thinking it is a sure fire moon shot on the ground floor of new tech and then it tanks as the market tanks, I panic and sell at the bottom.

    YOUR OWN MISUNDERSTANDING of what you can tolerate or what fits your situation generally leads you to untenable positions that are easy to abandon at exactly the wrong time.

    The root cause therefore of that "lack of patience" is not just your missing courage, or missing patience, it is your entry point against your own best interests or strategy. Take a flyer off track and pay the price at the bottom, which is usually where your regrets, angst and anger (at yourself maybe) leads you to act.

  • Report this Comment On April 19, 2013, at 6:11 PM, GrumpyOldGuy wrote:

    <<Not a single investor in today's market practicing legitimate buy and hold in a low-cost index fund has ever lost money. Not one.>>

    Silly me, I always thought QQQ was a low cost ETF.

    But I do agree that for most investors plugging money into SPY on a regular basis is probably the smartest move.

  • Report this Comment On April 19, 2013, at 6:29 PM, moneymaster7 wrote:

    Great article. Patience > Impatience

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 12:13 AM, sliderw wrote:

    Savers don't invest a lump sum at the beginning of your survey period. You need to take that into account.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 12:24 AM, TerryHogan wrote:

    I'm glad that this is literally true. If it were only figuratively true, I would have been worried.

    I have to take issue with this:

    "No true buy-and-holder has ever lost money."

    That statement definitely has to be qualified, for example by saying a buy-and-holder of an index (excluding the Nikkei and a few others) rather than an individual stock. And possibly by saying that they have to never sell, (which is kind of a silly assumption, unless your only goal is to die with more money than your neighbour).

    I'm all for buy-and-hold, as well as low cost index ETFs (I own a few). But I just think Morgan is painting a grossly over-simplified/rose-coloured picture of events.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 2:43 AM, mgmuer wrote:

    Thank's Morgan for this interesting article. How does it look for foreign investors? I bought Nvidia and Adobe more then 10 years ago and achieved a nice return in $. However in my domestic currenncy I actually lost money with this two top stocks!

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 6:56 AM, Leeps1 wrote:

    Hindsight is always 20/20. Patience did not pay off if you had bought and held Kodak, Lehman Brothers, Enron to a name a few. Buy and hold investors in Citibank, Blackberry and perhaps Apple may never recover their investments if bought at a high. It's a fact of life that dominant companies are not able to sustain their competitive edge longer than those say after WW2. Fools would be wise to take some money off the table when the opportunity arises.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 7:18 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<Savers don't invest a lump sum at the beginning of your survey period. You need to take that into account.>>

    It's true for all periods, since any average cost basis can't be higher than the all-time high.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 9:02 AM, Basilleaf wrote:

    buy and hold is just one way to the successful investment. The other way, which is more important is to give yourself enough margin of safty, which mean buy low, lower and lower, only in this case you can hold it for a long time with hope to get good return

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 10:29 AM, Darwood11 wrote:

    Good article, but I think this is but half the story. Most individual investors I have been led to believe buy for their retirement portfolios.

    There are two thoughts by doing so. 1) Have a retirement portfolio that grows over time. 2) Invest with the intention of fuelling a 30 year retirement (ages 65-95, for example).

    The above suggests that many of us are long term investors, but to accomplish #2 will require an exit strategy to extract money to live on in that retirement. To do so requires a long term diversified portfolio during the saving years and then a shift to extraction in the retirement years.

    If there is a serious downturn on the cusp of retirement that could put many retirement investors in a difficult situation. There has been a lot written about retirees who struggled because they were caught in a recession and had to sell assets at the low.

    I realize there are also strategies which may reduce this risk for near retirees; i.e. have 12 months cash, an additional 4 years in low volatility and so called "safe investments" and then the rest spread to accomplish one's financial goals for another 20 or more years. However, we don't have the luxury of Mr. Buffett who, even with a 50% decrease in the market, would have more than enough to live comfortably in his retirement.

    Of course, at present the "so called "safe investments"" have been bond funds, which today look dangerous; i.e. possibly susceptible to a bond market panic.

    Buy and hold is an important part of one's retirement planning. If I were 25 and knew what I know today, I wouldn't even think twice about investing because that portfolio would be designed for "some day" about 40 years in the future. However, anyone between 65 and 70 is faced with the dilemma of shifting from one strategy to a less aggressive portfolio and sustaining retirement income. Why? because I have yet to see any strategy that I am comfortable with for sustaining those "buckets" in 5 year increments. But it's on my "bucket list" is to figure this out in 2013.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 10:34 AM, metametal wrote:

    This article misses the point. Typical investors are impatient precisely *because* they have limited resources and lifespans. They can't just do "buy-and-hold" forever because circumstances in their lives force them to liquidate their investments at arbitrary times. When they do make the decision to sell, they may not be timing the market consciously but they're timing it nevertheless. And since their resources are limited, they can't afford to ride out a downturn that may require years to recover from (if you held on to stocks in 1929 you would have been underwater until 1953). If you're not Warren Buffet, you probably shouldn't take this article seriously. In volatile time, people with short lifespans (i.e., all of us), can't depend on long-term prospects. As Keynes famously said, in the long run we are all dead.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 10:38 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<They can't just do "buy-and-hold" forever because circumstances in their lives force them to liquidate their investments at arbitrary times>>

    Then they have too much of their assets invested in the first place.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 10:39 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<And since their resources are limited, they can't afford to ride out a downturn>>

    Again, then they shouldn't be invested in the first place. If their investment outlook relies on markets never falling by 20% or more, then they're on a suicide mission.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 11:24 AM, SBrown0825 wrote:

    I am not a "professional" investor, but even I made sure I had enough cash on hand for emergencies, unforeseen expenses, etc. before I even started investing in the market. If I lost everything I own in the stock market today, it would hurt, but it would not be devastating. The money I invest into the market is invested with the mindset that it is not even available, if I lose I lose. But if I do nothing I am 100% sure to gain nothing.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 12:43 PM, chengro wrote:

    This article may be true, but we need to recognize that in 2008 and even now, the Fed and others avoided a potential disaster by investing in our economic follies, (bail out). If this period would have been managed by the same mentality of the powers back in 1930's, my retirement would have included selling apples on the street corner. (and I mean the fruit, not the computer products) Many are saying that the Fed actions now will create a bubble and collapse in the future, hold on to your hats, it is going to be a rough ride....and if the Fed can not save us in the future, who will?

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 12:52 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<If this period would have been managed by the same mentality of the powers back in 1930's, my retirement would have included selling apples on the street corner. >>

    keep in mind, adjusted for inflation and with dividends the market was back at a new all-time high by 1936, less than seven years after the 1929 peak. The peak-to-peak time during the Great Depression was nearly identical in time to the 2007-2013 episode.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 1:19 PM, BabaRamDass wrote:

    I have never failed identifying a Morgan Housel article just by seeing the headline. And I have never failed to appreciate his perspective.

    In the early 1950s Frank Lane became

    General Manager of the Chicago White Sox--who had about the worst record in baseball from the 1919 Black Sox scandal on. Lane made an incredible number of trades, and essentially traded the White Sox into the 1958 World Series--their first since 1919. He was called Trader Lane. His profound comment when complimented for his trading skill: "Some of my best trades were the ones I never made." I'm a patient holder (which I consider a gift, more than a skill, (honed by experience), with annualized returns just below 20% since October 2006 (when I opened my Fidelity account). I think of Lane's comment often.

    Thaks for this and every other article you write, Morgan!

    BRD

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 1:32 PM, ponysean wrote:

    Interesting how these articles only come out when the market is at an all time high, which sounds great, but merely means it has just passed a 0% return since the last crash (not adjusted for inflation). But for argument's sake I will give him the benefit of the doubt.

    Being a younger investor, I am 31 years old and have had the advantage of investing over the last 13 years since I started earning income at age 18. If I had invested in the S&P 500 in 2000 at $1500, it was $1550 on friday, and I would have made 50 bucks over 13 years, adjusted for inflation, this is a huge loss, around 20-30% I believe.

    What I did do is invest in a diverse junk bond fund which has slow steady growth, low volatility and has gone from 12.00 to 14.00, but that doesn't include the 7% annualized return that is paid out monthly in the form of a dividend/buyback. My original investment is well over double what I have paid in and it is guaranteed to grow as I get a guaranteed payment into my account every month.

    I realize that the market had steady guaranteed returns from 1930-2000, but has anyone considered that the economy has changed over the last 10 years? The financial industry has exploded. People involved in the finance industry don't get rich using buy and hold, they make money off of fees, volatility and high frequency trading. The inflation adjusted return on the S&P 500 is negative over the last 13 years, but the percentage of income going to the top 1% has been increasing astronomically as has been identified multiple times on this website. Where do you think this money is coming from? You and me, the average investor. Do you think they are buying and holding? No way. It is undeniable that the stock market is more volatile in the last 10 years than it was during the last 90, look at the graph in the above article. Buy low sell high, or earn monthly income with an income mutual fund, my generation doesn't have any other choice. Seems like common sense, I don't understand why these talking heads keep evangelizing buy and hold while ignoring the economic changes over the last 10-15 years.

    This is the real reason the younger generation is wary of the stock market.

  • Report this Comment On April 20, 2013, at 6:26 PM, Wildflyer wrote:

    Article admirably emphasizes the value of patience for strategic investing,but minimizes the pitfalls of holding speculative stocks-even longterm.To wit :the buy&hold concept must entail having a core of relatively stable and "less volatile" stocks (eg.large growth companies,broad indexes).Otherwise "luck",good or bad, will negate the "patience and time" effect.

    One must also realize that more speculative small caps rarely rally with the Dow or S&P 500.

    As an alternative to stocks(and to minimize exposure to irresponsible corporate management

    or being misled by biased information promulgated by the "financial products"industry) it would behoove many (esp.young) investors to pursue direct investment in a high quality/low cost/no load mutual fund (eg Fool,Vanguard,TR Price,Fidelity) for steadier compounding of returns."Buy and hold" temperament has served many such fund managers well.

    BTW,I have yet to find that my returns from venture cap funds,private placements,and similar "more speculative" investments have caught up with those of core mutual funds,or even solid stocks like Walmart (WMT) over several decades.The "compounding" effect of time&patience described by Housel is awesome.

    BRWIX vs RPMGX illustrate how managers' style and patience greatly influence returns.

    "Primum non nocere" vs "It takes leather balls to play rugby"

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 12:57 AM, Cruiser55N wrote:

    Unfortunately this article fails to account for the consequences of price inflation. If you bought, or held, the S&P 500 in 2000 you've waited 13 years and lost ground. If we're about to go into a protracted period of inflation this could go on for a very long time. Using history as an example if you bought the S&P 500 in 1969 you had to wait until 1993 to finally recover your 1969 value in real terms. Actually you had to wait even longer since at that point you had a tax liability due to the phantom capital gains.

    If you fail to account for the damage done by price inflation you are setting yourself up for dissapointment in a standard of living sense during retirement. Note, bonds fair even worse than stocks in an inflationary environment and, obviously, yields and prices are presently in unsustainable territory.

    Keep it real folks! Don't fall for the fairy tales.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 7:51 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<Unfortunately this article fails to account for the consequences of price inflation.>>

    Fortunately, yes it does. Include dividends, and the S&P is at an all-time high even after inflation.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 12:26 PM, EricTheRon13 wrote:

    Not true. If you bought QQQQ in 1999 and are still holding it, you have definitely lost money. And even if you mean broad-market indexes like SPY, it depends on your starting and ending points, and what you call long-term. In the long term, we will already be dead.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 2:47 PM, mikecart1 wrote:

    This article is missing 1 important fact. Long-term buy and hold might be good for investors that invest in S&P500 funds or some type of mutual fund that represents a portion of the stock market. The article doesn't address patient investors that have a few key holdings/stocks that were supposedly safe but have returned very little or produced negative returns in that time period or any given time period of 1-2 years or more that would be considered 'buy-and-hold'.

    :)

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 3:11 PM, metametal wrote:

    <<<<They can't just do "buy-and-hold" forever because circumstances in their lives force them to liquidate their investments at arbitrary times>>>>

    <<Then they have too much of their assets invested in the first place.>>

    The article should have included this caveat. As it is, it is misleading. To say "No *true* buy-and-holder has ever lost money" (emphasis added) is meaningless if you then turn around and say that anyone who did lose money must have had too much invested in the first place. This is double talk!

    Any investor can lose money if he is ever obliged to liquidate a position for any reason. It doesn't matter whether that person is a "true", "false", or "indifferent" buy-and-hold investor. Warren Buffet is rich enough to hold onto any given position until hell freezes over. The rest of us have to be able to liquidate our assets at a loss.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 5:24 PM, PEStudent wrote:

    "Buy-and-holders view volatility like the flu. Yeah, it's not fun. It can hurt. But you're probably going to get it once a year."

    That's not true for those of us who make automatic monthly purchases in addition to buying and holding (plus making at least a yearly review of each stock we own).

    On the 25th I'm going to automatically purchase shares of General Mills and Duke Realty through their DRIPs. If the market fluctuates low because of some hype that won't mean anything to the value in a year, I'll get MORE shares of each one.

    When volatility drives the price higher than average, I don't buy as many shares as when it drives the price low. So volatility drives my average price down (the old trick of dollar cost averaging) so I look at volatility as a friend, not the flu.

    And stocks usually show significant volatility much more than once a year if you believe the typical financial news site hype. The S&P 500 Index went from 1588 to 1555 last week and one article at a major site a called it a "crushing rout." CNBC is telling us this coming week will "make or break" the market while USA Today warns us about "ominous" earnings reports (despite the fact 75% of them are coming in ahead of projections).

    The fact that volatility is my friend makes such reports laughable.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 7:23 PM, Darwood11 wrote:

    "They can't just do "buy-and-hold" forever because circumstances in their lives force them to liquidate their investments at arbitrary times."

    Response: "then they have too much of their assets invested in the first place."

    Okay, so what's suggested? According to the title of the article "Patient investors will always win."

    So, what percentage should be invested to overcome the ravages of inflation while avoiding periodic stock or bond market meltdowns, so that "patient investors" will always win WITHIN THEIR LIFETIME?

    The answers is usually "Save more than one needs." However, as I stated in previous posts, I am of the opinion that Mr. Buffett, and others, may be disingenuous because they are playing with a different deck.

    For most of us, investing via "index funds" can be dangerous to our long term financial well-being. Why? Because we can "save" for 40 years from the age of 25 to 65, but we are then faced with depleting those savings within 30 years (from the age of 65 to 95) and if that retirement coincides with the beginning of a long term bear market, oh, well!

    Yes, if we continuously reinvest dividends and so on, we can expect our retirement investments to grow with time, but of course, with normal inflation the purchasing power of the dollar will decrease substantially while we are "retired" and simultaneously dissipating our wealth in retirement. During that 30 year period, if the economy and the market goes through one of it's normal "bear" periods, well, too bad for you! If there is a "bond market" panic, well, double "too bad for you." Can't happen? We're in uncertain times.

    Perhaps the title of the article should have been "Patient Investors Will Always Win in their lifetime if they invest at least 20% of their gross income." Why? Who cares about how large the "net worth" is. It's about investments meeting one's spending in retirement for the duration of that retirement. Mr. Buffett has a nearly limitless well to draw upon. Not me!

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 11:45 PM, adieselman wrote:

    This is complete BS..the only thing costing the average or low end investor is the fees and commissions. It is NOT lack of knowledge! If I move $1000 and it cost me $50 it's a no- brainer where my profit is going. Get real.

  • Report this Comment On April 21, 2013, at 11:58 PM, adieselman wrote:

    patient investor are only here because of the prohibited costs otherwise. I have to think about how much I anticipate in returns with these costs factored in,,and hope that I make the 3.5% cost of living increase.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2013, at 10:23 AM, WishToRetire2 wrote:

    Be careful not to simply extrapolate what has happened in the past into the future. The level of indebtedness in the world is going to be a drag on the growth and the gains in the decades going forward.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2013, at 10:27 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<The level of indebtedness in the world is going to be a drag on the growth and the gains in the decades going forward.>>

    Yeah, Rogoff and Reinhart wrote a good paper on that.

    Oh, wait ...

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2013, at 10:39 AM, Costanzawallet wrote:

    It seems to me that many individual investors do not have the money to buy a significant piece of enough individual stocks to be properly diversified. The indexes beat most funds and individual investment strategies a very high percentage of the time. sure there are always some who can beat the market, and patience doesn't mean investing and falling asleep, but low cost sector etf's and the major indexes are pretty sound ways of getting a good return in the long run.

  • Report this Comment On April 23, 2013, at 11:54 PM, Gidiga wrote:

    Over forty years of investing - speculating, there is a difference, you know, only my mutual funds have shown a sizeable increase in my spouse's and my IRA accounts, using the buy and hold, reinvesting dividends and adding dollars at random times.

    World Com, Eastman Kodak and some gold stocks are examples of solid losers as is Microsoft, still held by me, among others.

    The Motley Fool recommends stocks, but if one picks 4-6 mutual funds and adds moneys at random and reinvests dividends, he will out perform stocks picked by himself or an advisor, at least in my case.

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2013, at 1:21 PM, jrj90620 wrote:

    I think, it's the difference between buying companies,like Buffett does, and what most do,buy stocks.When you buy stocks,you don't feel like you are a partner in a company.You are buying paper.You don't feel secure,when things get tough.You tend to get emotional,greedy when your stock rises and fearful when it declines.When you are a company partner,you check out the management.Look at the long term.You don't close down the company(sell your ownership),every time the economy gets weak or there is some other,temporary problem.

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2013, at 1:24 PM, jrj90620 wrote:

    Interesting,that Buffett says he wants to pay more taxes,but acts like he doesn't.Holding company stock,for decades,allows for tax free,wealth accumulation.Best to do what Buffett does,not what he says.

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2013, at 1:47 PM, MCCrockett wrote:

    Is the purchase of shares in an investment pool (mutual fund) really a "buy and hold" strategy?

    I subscribed to investment advisory services to manage my IRA accounts. The big difference between this approach and investing in a mutual fund is that I own the actual securities instead of a share in the investment pool.

    Regardless of approach, the investment advisors are buying and selling securities to meet the defined goals of the mutual fund or advisory service.

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2013, at 2:58 PM, drborst wrote:

    Morgan,

    I get your point, you've made it many times before. But....

    I've done the modeling (after you made the same point a few weeks back), and I think darwood11 was exactly right.

    I know roughly when I can retire (~20 years) and in my retirement account I'm buying and holding an index fund. But if we hit a 20 or even 50% decline in the last few years, my retirement turns from leasure and travel into WallMart greeter pretty quickly.

    I have other buy and hold accounts that could turn my kids college years into community college years with an unfortunately timed market drop (and I have less control over when that happens). In that case, I've effectively tried timing the market about 19 years in advance.

    So, the response to darwood11 that someone not able to live with a 20% drop has too much of their assets invested seems, at best, insensitive.

    DRB

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2013, at 3:28 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    ^ It seems you are assuming that there are two options: fully invested or not invested.

    You can gradually reduce the amount you are invested in stocks as you approach retirement or a college education. Indeed, you probably should.

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