Friday, October 16, 2009

Investments Primer

An investment is anything you acquire for future income or other financial benefit. Investments increase by generating income (interest or dividends) and/or by growing (appreciating) in value.

It's important that you go into any investment in stocks, bonds, annuities, or mutual funds with a full understanding that you could lose some or all of your money in any one investment.

As you can see in the chart below, different kinds of investments generally provide different rates of return (as well as different risks—highest to lowest in the chart below). Note that average rates of return are not guaranteed; they only show what has happened historically.

Asset ClassRate of Return*
Stocks of smaller companies14%-16%
Common stocks
Long term corporate bonds6.5%-8%
Long term US government bonds5%-7.5%
Short term US Treasury bills3.5%-5%
*Average rate of return since 1926, Ibbotson and Associates

When choosing an investment type (stocks, bonds, annuities, funds, etc.), start by figuring out how much risk you want to take. Yes, yes, obviously we all want low risk, but low risk generally means low returns, so in some cases it's worth the added risk to earn the added cash. Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine the amount of risk you should take:
  1. Do you have a specific financial goal? An amount you need to accumulate over a given period? If not, ask yourself how much you'd like (realistically) to have in ten years, twenty years, forty years, etc. If you're hell-bent on becoming a millionaire (and good luck!), you might decide to opt for higher risk, higher return investments. Also, if you're saving for retirement and it's a ways away, you have more freedom to go with higher risk investments because you have longer to recoup your losses if things don't go your way.

  2. When are you going to need money the most? In other words, how long can you leave your savings tied up in investments before you start needing to spend it? Are saving for your first house in a few years or are you planning on leaving your investments grow to support you in your retirement? Generally, the longer time horizon you have, the more risk you can tolerate because investments tend to have more even growth over long period of time.

  3. How financial stable are you? Can you afford to lose some of your investment or will that leave you completely destitute? If you absolutely cannot take the chance of losing any of your money even if it means the chance of gaining more (yes, it's a gamble that way), choose lower risk investments.

Investors best protect themselves against risk by spreading their money among various investments, hoping that if one investment loses money, the other investments will more than make up for those losses. This strategy, called diversification, can be neatly summed up as, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." Investors also protect themselves from the risk of investing all their money at the wrong time (think 1929--or recently) by following a consistent pattern of adding new money to their investments over long periods of time.

Monitoring Your Investments
Some people like to look at the stock quotations every day to see how their investments have done. That's probably too often. You may get too caught up in the ups and downs of the "trading" value of your investment, and sell when its value goes down temporarily--even though the performance of the company is still stellar. Remember, you're in for the long haul. Check monthly or quarterly instead.

Keep in mind, though, that it's not enough to simply check an investment's performance. You should compare that performance against an index of similar investments over the same period of time to see if you are getting the proper returns for the amount of risk that you are assuming. You should also compare the fees and commissions that you're paying to what other investment professionals charge. Look for a low expense ratio (below 1%).

Invest Wisely / Don't be stupid
(adapted from SEC's "Invest Wisely")

  • Send money to purchase an investment based simply on a telephone sales pitch.
  • Make a check out to a sales representative personally.
  • Send checks to an address different from the business address of the brokerage firm or a designated address listed in the prospectus.
  • Allow your transaction confirmations and account statements to be delivered or mailed to your sales representative as a substitute for receiving them yourself. These documents are your official record of the date, time, amount, and price of each security purchased or sold. When you receive them you should verify that the information in these statements is correct and file them away safely.
  • Trust anyone who tells you, "Invest quickly or you will miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity!"or otherwise puts pressure on you to make an investment quickly.
If your sales representative asks you to do any of these things, contact the branch manager or compliance officer of the brokerage firm.

Certain activities may indicate problems in the handling of your account and, possibly, violations of state and federal securities laws, such as:
  • Recommendations from a sales representative based on "inside" or "confidential information," an "upcoming favorable research report," a "prospective merger or acquisition," or the announcement of a "dynamic new product."
  • Representations of spectacular or specific profit, such as, "Your money will double in six months." Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
  • "Guarantees" that you will not lose money on a particular securities transaction, or agreements by a sales representative to share in any losses in your account.
  • An excessive number of transactions in your account. Such activity generates additional commissions for your sales representative, but may provide no better investment opportunities for you.
  • A recommendation from your sales representative that you make a dramatic change in your investment strategy, such as moving from low risk investments to speculative securities, or concentrating your investments exclusively in a single product.
  • Switching your investment in a mutual fund to a different fund with the same or similar investment objectives. Unless there is a legitimate investment purpose, a switch recommended by your sales representative may simply be an attempt to generate additional commissions for the sales representative.
  • Pressure to trade the account in a manner that is inconsistent with your investment goals and the risk you want or can afford to take.
  • Assurances from your sales representative that an error in your account is due solely to computer or clerical error. Insist that the branch manager or compliance officer promptly send you a written explanation. Verify that the problem has been corrected on your next account statement.

If You Have a Problem (adapted from SEC's "Invest Wisely")
If you have a problem with your sales representative or your account, promptly talk to the sales representative's manager or the firm's compliance officer. Confirm your complaint to the firm in writing. Keep written records of all conversations. Ask for written explanations.

If the problem is not resolved to your satisfaction, contact the appropriate regulators listed at the end of this document. Investor complaint information assists these regulators in identifying violations of the securities laws and prosecuting violators. However, none of these organizations is authorized to provide legal representation to individual investors or to get your money back for you.

Obtain information on using arbitration to resolve your dispute by contacting FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, or the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Each of these organizations operates a forum to resolve disputes between brokerage firms and their customers. You may also wish to consult an attorney knowledgeable about securities laws. Your local bar association can assist you in locating a securities attorney.

Securities Regulators to Contact:
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
100 F Street, NE
Washington, DC 20549
Office of Investor Education and Advocacy
Online Complaint Form

North American Securities Administrators Association, Inc.
Suite 710
10 G Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
(202) 737-0900
Web site

Each state has its own securities regulator. You can find your regulator at the website of the North American Securities Administrators Association.

For more specific information, click on one of the investment types in the menu on the left.

The ICI has a great set of educational resources for investors on their website, complete with charts, graphs, and worksheets to help you understand investing principles.

See also:
Stocks: What To Look For, How to Trade For Long-Term Gains

: The Basics

Funds: Mutual Funds, ETFs, Closed-end Funds, Hedge Funds, Oh My!

Annuities: What Are They? How Do They Work? And How Do I Find the Right One For Me?

Investing for Retirement: Retirement Accounts Overview

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