There are many variables that make successful investing a challenge.

And one of your biggest foes may just be you.

What do I mean by this? 

Are You Your Own Worst Investment Enemy?

In my last post, Mutual Funds Lag Their Benchmarks, I linked to a Wall Street Journal article, It’s Not Your Fault Your Fund Can’t Keep Up.

According to the article, you are also at fault as to why your portfolio lags its benchmark.

The average equity-fund investor saw annual returns of only 3.49% in the 20 years through 2011, according to the latest analysis from Dalbar. Compare that with the average 7.81% annual return of the S&P 500.

For the average investor, that’s more than half the possible returns left on the table.

That is significant in both relative and absolute terms.

If you started with $100,000, made no additional investments, and earned 3.49%, over 20 years your capital would grow to $198,595. But had you earned 7.81% annually, that $100,000 would become $449,967. A lot of money to leave on the table.

Why the discrepancy?

The reason is most investors fail to hold mutual-fund investments for long enough, and instead try to time their investments. But they tend to enter the market after it has risen, Mr. Harvey says. So they are likely buying at a higher price. They also are apt to leave the market after it has dropped, therefore selling at a lower price.

The result: investments that will massively underperform against their benchmarks.

A lot of this is due to emotional investing based on lack of investment expertise. Individuals wait too long before buying – they want to see a clear upward trend first – and/or miss the price peaks. A good example of this would be investment bubbles.

Even many knowledgeable investors can get caught up in the hype. It is not easy or popular to take contrarian stances. Better to get it wrong like everyone else, than to get it wrong while everyone else is correct. The herd mentality is quite common in the investment world.

Also, it is extremely difficult to time market or stock movements. Or identify the best individual investments. Even if you manage to stay unemotional. That is why professional money managers typically underperform their portfolio benchmarks. And why the “best” investment analysts seem to change from year to year.

What to Do?

investors looking to close the gap should be buying mutual funds, whether they be stock or bond funds, for the long term. Don’t be tempted to bail when performance is poor because, over time, that has been shown to be a losing strategy.

And don’t try to chase performance by getting into funds that have performed well recently. This is the equivalent of buying high and selling low—the exact opposite of what investors should be doing.

You know me.

If You Cannot Beat Them, Join Them

If you cannot beat the market, try to match it as closely as possible. That means passive investing in open ended index mutual and exchange traded funds (ETFs). Keep costs low and replicate the benchmark as best you can. Actively invest under only a few scenarios.

ETFs Over Mutual Funds

As for the article’s comment on ETFs over mutual funds, I generally agree.

I prefer ETFs for their potential trading and cost advantages. But there are a wide variety of cost effective mutual funds out there. Many are extremely popular with investors. I still think they have a place in one’s portfolio. So long as you focus on cost and net performance.

Also, as the popularity of ETFs grow, so do the number of ETFs offered. Not all are cost-effective or simple structures that replicate clear benchmarks. Be careful if considering investing in such things as leveraged ETFs, actively managed ETFs, life-cycle ETFs, alternative asset ETFs, and ETF wraps.

Buy and Hold

Identify solid investments and invest for the long-term.

I like the buy and hold approach for funds, although not so much for individual non-diversified assets. The buy and hold promotes investment discipline and works well for most investors in shifting markets.

Note that you still need to periodically review your holdings and rebalance as necessary.

Dollar Cost Average

I also like a dollar cost averaging approach.

By investing a fixed amount on a periodic basis, you buy relatively more shares when the asset is cheap and less shares when the price is high. That smooths your purchase stream and provides some protection over time against volatile markets.

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