Fools' First Loves: ING Russia A

Do we ever forget our first love? Do we ever forget our first stock? It depends.

Some loves, like some stocks, are best forgotten. The liars, the cheaters, the ones who give us a serious case of achy, breaky heartburn -- those we'd love to forget. And that's precisely why we shouldn't forget them.

My own first stock wasn't actually a stock. It was a fund: the Lexington Troika Dialog Russia Fund, most recently acquired by ING (NYSE: ING  ) and currently trading as ING Russia A (FUND: LETRX  ) . Right there's the sum total of what I knew about "LETRX" when I first bought it. I knew it:

  • was a fund.
  • invested in Russia.
  • had been "going up."
  • . and that's about it.

In hindsight, after several years spent profiting under the tutelage of The Motley Fool, I now realize that I knew nowhere near enough about the Russia Fund. I really had no business investing in it. But what can I say? I was a fool (note the small "f") in love. I was working in Russia myself and saw how the economy was booming. My investment in the Russia Fund more resembled infatuation than it did a planned marriage.

So how'd it work out?
I won't go into all the gory details, but you can look at this chart and see for yourself. That spike on the left side of the chart around $20 -- that's me, buying in just before the top. And the top itself -- that's when then-President Boris Yeltsin famously pronounced: "I firmly and clearly assure you that there will be no devaluation" of the Russian ruble.

Three days later, Russia defaulted on its loans and devalued the ruble, precipitating the Russia Fund's stomach-churning descent toward $2. I endured the entire sickening ride down, went part of the way back up, and finally hopped off the roller coaster somewhere in the middle of the chart, just shy of $10 in late 2002.

What lessons did I learn?
Well, there were several. For one thing, I learned not to base investment decisions on the promises of politicians.

Yeltsin had just finished winning re-election to the Russian presidency with the campaign tagline: "Vote with your heart." In investing, as in love, voting with your heart is all well and good -- except when your eyes contradict what your heart tells you. My heart told me: "The president can't be lying. If he says there will be no devaluation, there won't be, or at least not anytime soon."

Meanwhile, every day, my eyes saw Russian state bonds yielding as much as 100% -- a situation that was clearly unsustainable and which made default and devaluation as near to certainty as these things can get. By holding onto my shares in the Russia Fund, I may have voted for Russia with my heart, but I paid with my wallet.

So if a politician tells you the U.S. intends to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by 75%, think twice before rushing out to buy ethanol plays like ADM (NYSE: ADM  ) and Pacific Ethanol (Nasdaq: PEIX  ) . And think three times before shorting ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) or Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) . A politician's words are one thing, but actions may be quite different.

And one more thing ...
The most important lesson I learned was to think before investing. Before buying into the Russia Fund, I needed to ask several critical questions, but I wound up asking none of them. Of course, at the time, I didn't know what the questions were. Thanks to my recent interview with Motley Fool fund guru Shannon Zimmerman, now I do.

Shannon pointed out that before recommending any fund to subscribers to the Motley Fool Champion Funds newsletter, he investigates:

  • The fund manager's track record.
  • Whether the manager invests in his own fund.
  • The shareholder friendliness of the fund's parent company.

In contrast, I didn't know who ran the Russia Fund, hadn't a clue whether he or she "ate his (her?) own cooking," and was completely ignorant of who really owned the fund. Was it Lexington? Was it Troika Dialog? Beats me.

In fact, it did beat me -- out of five years in which I could have been investing profitably. But I don't want to end this story on a down note, and there's actually a happy ending. You see, this was my first investment, and so there was little money at stake. In contrast, the lessons I learned from my Russian tryst proved invaluable over the ensuing years. Time, additional paychecks, and advice from The Motley Fool ultimately healed my wounds.

Speaking of which, if you want to learn more about Shannon's philosophy, the one that currently has 87% of his picks beating the market, you can click right through here to read the interview.

Take a look at the rest of today's package:

Fool contributor Rich Smith no longer owns shares the Russia Fund, nor does he own shares of any other company mentioned above. He can be reached atWriteRich@gmail.com.

Fools' First Loves represents the opinion of one Fool and should in no way be taken as the opinion of either The Motley Fool or the company in question, or as representative of anyone or anything other than that specific Fool's thoughts. So before buying, do your homework and review The Motley Fool's much-beloveddisclosure policy.


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