Turning $1,000 Into $277 Trillion

Again with the trillions ...
A while back, I wrote a little article aimed at exposing a fairly common market myth: the idea that any individual can trade his or her way to supersized returns, day in and day out. As usual, I got a bit of email quibbling with my contention.

"All I need is the chart," these hopeful traders tell me. They say, "Give me jumpy, high-volume, popular stocks like Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) (which easily moves 2% or 3% in a day), and I can skim a few percent per trade, 50% or 100% a month."

"That will make me rich!"

Or so the story goes.

It sure would make you rich. A trillionaire, actually. And in short time. Starting with $1,000 and getting those 100% returns every month, you'd have a tidy $34 trillion before the end of three years. If you could actually compound at 5% per trade, 15 times a month, my Excel spreadsheet tells me you'd have $276 trillion at the end of 36 months. This alone should have been sufficient evidence to prove that the thesis is bunk.

But some folks (well-meaning, to be sure) misunderstood and wrote asking me for further details on this amazing moneymaking plan.

So much for subtlety.

Let's set the record straight right here: This is not possible.

Bad news? Not really.

The good news is: It is possible to turn thousands into millions, but not via the trading gimmicks. The keys to making millions in the market are persistence, patience, and time.

Uh-oh. I think we just lost the get-rich-quick crowd.

But congratulations to those of you who remain. Avoiding the bogus promises of the "no work, free money" industry is step one to investing successfully. The next is embracing the obvious. The data shows that the way to beat the market isn't with stomach-curdling hot tamales but with boring value stocks.

About that good news
My colleague Bill Barker recently penned an article called "70 Times Better Than the Next Microsoft." In it, he explains why value wins in the long run. Here's a one-sentence summary:

It's because the growth-chasers out there always overpay.

A few well-known examples will show how this can crush you, even when you avoid high-priced junk that goes to zero. Overpaying gets you into trouble even when you buy good companies like Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) or Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) or Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) . Look what happened to people who bought them when they peaked in popularity. Pay special attention to that last column, which is the return you got as a shareholder.

Oct. 9, 2008 returns

P/E 1999

P/E 2000

P/E 2003

P/E Current

Return, 1999-today

Cisco

116.4

149.7

42.3

13.2

-52%

Dell

71.2

37.7

38.8

10.0

-70%

Microsoft

63.9

33.6

31.5

11.9

-44%

*Dividend-adjusted returns. Data from Capital IQ.

Folks who bought when everyone thought these companies could do no wrong are nursing some serious wounds. The best off lost only half of their money over six years. But even folks who bought after the bubble had burst and dried up (2003) have seen the price-to-earnings ratios contract.

Turn it around
Here's where you profit from market mania: by making a habit of buying solid businesses that the market presumes to be closer to dead and buried. Look at the same figures for a few boring, well-known companies over that same period.

Oct. 9, 2008 returns

P/E 1999

P/E 2000

P/E 2003

P/E Current

Return, 1999-today

Deere (NYSE: DE  )

21.7

21.7

21.8

8.1

133%

Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  )

18.2

11.9

25.2

7.4

96%

Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM  )

11.9

8.3

17.2

14.1

168%

*Dividend-adjusted returns. Data from Capital IQ.

Even though these three stalwarts were recently slaughtered by the market, they still show market-whomping returns. Which stocks were you buying in 2000? Which would you rather have been buying? When everyone thought the Internet would change the world, no one wanted companies that did things like building combines, selling loaders, or serving cheap tacos. But the companies doing these things continued to prosper, and they treated shareholders to very good returns once the Street came back to its senses.

The lesson is simple: Investors invariably do better in the long run by refusing to overpay, and you can do that when you buy what everyone else ignores. Bill cites some compelling numbers he found suggesting that, from 1927 until 2004, "value" stocks of the large- and smaller-cap variety returned 12.4% to 15.4% annually. "Growth" of all stripes couldn't even turn 10%.

A dose of reality
But let's get back to math. Bill's compounded those hypothetical returns over a 78-year time frame. That assumes you started investing the moment you slid out of the womb and would be content to slide into the grave without ever touching any of that hard-earned dough. Sound reasonable?

Reality doesn't bite
It's a bit of a stretch for me. But we don't have to go to extremes to prove our point. Let's assume you start investing at age 21 and you want to pull up stakes 40 years later. Let's further assume that you do this saving in a tax-advantaged Roth IRA, starting with $4,000 and investing only to the current $4,000 limit per year. Finally, I'm going to assume you can get a blended historical value returns, splitting the difference between the two figures cited above, compounded annually. Let's be honest -- this is a pretty aggressive assumption, but I believe it is possible.

Starting

Annual Contributions

Return Rate

Total

$4,000

$4,000

13.9%

$5,948,700

As you'll see, reality might not be 70 times better than the next Microsoft, but it could still be pretty sweet.

What does this mean?
The bottom line here is simple: There is no way to get rich quick. But -- with apologies to the grammar police -- there is a way to get rich slow.

Yes, you can retire with millions, but you absolutely must be persistent with your savings, and you must buy what the market doesn't want. That's exactly the kind of no-nonsense approach we follow at Motley Fool Inside Value, where we look for those 1999 Deeres, Caterpillars, and Yum!s, while the market is looking elsewhere -- or nowhere at all. A guest pass will let you see what meets our current measure of cheap and -- better yet -- explain why.

This article was first published in January 2006. It has been updated.

Seth Jayson is no longer working on that 5% per trade. At the time of publication, he had no position in any company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Microsoft and Dell are Inside Value recommendations. Fool rules are here.


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  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2008, at 3:06 PM, Venture123 wrote:

    Some people (maybe 1 out of 1000) are top notch traders and they CAN get rich from trading. The rest have to read articles like this to prevent themselves from going broke from attempting to do what only the top notch trader can accomplish. ;-)

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