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The first key to successful stock investing has more to do with your emotions than a fundamental understanding of what causes stocks to move up or down. Emotions about money can be a powerful thing and cause people to behave in irrational ways. One of the most common phrases passed on to investors as a piece of wisdom is to “buy low and sell high”. However, study after study has shown that most individual investors fail to heed that advice. Why does this happen? Well, I would submit the real cause is behavioral and based upon incomplete information. Let’s dig into that statement a little further and reveal the key as well.

Most individual investors are told when they start investing in stocks via mutual funds and/or ETFs to expect an annual return of 8% to 9% per year. You will find that many financial calculators to help you plan for retirement on the Internet have that as one of the inputs to calculate the growth of your portfolio over time. While that information is not too far off the mark based upon historical returns of the S&P 500 stock index, the actual annual returns of stocks do not cooperate to the constant frustration of so many investors. That brings us to the first key to successful stock investing: The actual yearly returns of stocks very rarely equal the average expected. The most common term for this phenomenon is referred to as volatility. Stocks tend to bounce around quite a bit from year to year. Volatility combines with the natural instinct of people to extrapolate from the recent past, and investing becomes a very difficult task. I will get deeper into the numbers in a later post for those readers who like to more fully understand the concepts I discuss. I do need talk in general about annual stock returns at this point to expand upon the first key.

Below I have provided a chart of the annual returns of the S&P 500 index for every year in the 21st century:


% Return




























What is the first thing you notice when looking at the yearly returns in the table? First, you might notice that they really jump around a lot. More importantly, none of the years has a return that is between 8% and 9%. The closest year is 2004 with a return of 10.9%. If the only piece of information you have is to expect the historical average over time, the lack of consistency can be extraordinarily frustrating and scary. In fact, individual investors (and sometimes professional investors too) commonly look back at the last couple of years and expect those actual returns to continue into the future. Therein lies the problem. Investors tend to be gleeful when returns have been really good and very fearful when returns have been very low. Since the average never comes around very often, investors will forget what returns to expect over the long run and will “buy high and sell low”. It is common to sell stocks after a prolonged downturn and wait until it is “safe” to buy stocks again which is how the sound advice gets turned around.

I will not get too heavy into math and statistics, but I wanted to provide you will some useful information to at least be prepared when you venture out to invest by yourself or by using a financial professional. I looked back at all the returns of the S&P 500 index since 1928 (note the index had lesser numbers of stocks in the past until 1957). The actual annual return of the index was between 7% and 11% only 5 out of the 86 years or 5.8%. That statistic means that your annual return in stocks will be around the average once every 17 years. The 50-year average annual return for the S&P 500 index (1964-2013) was approximately 9.8%. Actual returns were negative 24 out of 86 years (27.9% of the time) and greater than 15% 42 out of 86 years (48.8% of the time). How does relate to the first key of stock investing that I mentioned earlier (“The actual yearly returns of stocks very rarely equal the average expected)?

Well, it should be much easier to see at this point. If you are investing in stocks to achieve the average return quoted in so many sources of 8% to 9%, it is definitely a long-term proposition and can be a bumpy ride. The average return works out in the end, but you need to have a solid plan, either by yourself or with the guidance financial professional, to ensure that you stick to the long-term financial plan to reach the financial goals that you have set. Knowing beforehand should greatly assist you in controlling your emotions. I recommend trying to anticipate what you will do when the actual return you achieve by investing in stocks is well below or quite high above the average in your portfolio. Having this information provides a much better way to truly understand and your risk tolerance when it comes to deciding what percentage of your monies to allocate to stocks in my opinion. I will readily admit it is not easy to do in practice during powerful bull or bear markets, but I think it helps to know upfront what actual stock returns look like and prepare yourself emotionally in additional to the intellectual side of investing. Now I always mention that statistics can be misleading, conveniently picked to make a point, or not indicative of the future. Nevertheless, I have tried to present the information fairly and in general terms.

As previously mentioned, I will be writing another related blog post that will discuss the numbers in more detail with math and statistics.  I have separated these discussions so that those intimidated by math or who do not want to get into all the details can skip that part.  However, I will be providing some advice on how to use the information I have provided to assist you in moving past the first key to successful stock investing.