Understanding long-term risk factors

Safe Long-Term Investing

by Rick Kahler

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More than a fourth of Americans think the best long-term investment is money in the bank.

This is the rather discouraging result of a July survey by Bankrate. One of its questions was, "For money you wouldn't need for more than 10 years, which one of the following do you think would be the best way to invest the money?"

Cash was the top choice at 26%, followed by real estate at 23%. Sixteen percent of the respondents chose precious metals, such as gold. Only 14% would put their long-term investment into the stock market, and just 8% thought bonds were the best choice.

That thumping sound you hear is me banging my head on my desk.

I assume those who opted for cash did so because keeping money in the bank seemed to be the safest choice. For long-term investing, however, that safety is an illusion. The best and safest place to put your nest egg for the future is not in the bank, but in a well-diversified portfolio with a variety of asset classes. Here's why:

Savings accounts and CDs are safe places to store relatively small amounts of cash that you expect to need within the next few months or years. The funds are protected by insurance. You know exactly where your money is, and you can get your hands on it any time you want.

This short-term safety does not make the bank a good place for money you will need for retirement or other needs ten years or so into the future. It may seem like safe investing because the amount in your account never goes down. You're always earning interest. Yet, over time, that interest isn't enough to keep pace with inflation. The purchasing power of your money decreases, which means you're actually losing money. It just doesn't feel like a loss because you don't see the loss in value.

In contrast, the stock market fluctuates. The media reports constantly that "the DOW is up" or "NASDAQ is down," as if those day-to-day numbers matter. This fosters a perception that investing in the stock market is risky. Combine that with the scarcity of education about finances and economics, and it's no wonder that so many people are afraid of the stock market and view investing almost as a form of gambling.

Wise long-term investing in the stock market is anything but gambling. Instead of trying to buy and sell a few stocks as their prices go up and down, wise investors neutralize the impact of market fluctuations by owning a vast assortment of assets.

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This is accomplished with a two-part strategy. The first is to invest in mutual funds rather than individual stocks. With just one mutual fund that invests in an index of stocks, you might own thousands of different companies. Your hard-earned fortune isn't dependent on the fortunes of just a few companies.

The second component is asset class diversification. An asset class is a type of investment, such as U. S. and International stocks, U. S. and International bonds, real estate investment trusts, commodities, market neutral funds, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, and junk bonds. Ideally, a diversified portfolio should include nine or more asset classes.

By holding small amounts of a great many different companies and asset classes, you spread your risk so broadly that the inevitable fluctuations are small ripples rather than steep gains or losses. As some types of investments decline in value, other types will be gaining value. Over the long term, the entire portfolio grows.

In the long term, investing in this way is usually safer than money in the bank.

Rick Kahler

Rick Kahler, MSFP, ChFC, CFP, is a fee-only financial planner and author. Find more information at KahlerFinancial.com. Contact him at Rick@KahlerFinancial.com or 343-1400, ext. 111.

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