Discipline Is the Most Important Attribute for Investors

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A few days ago I looked at the difference between skill and luck in investing and the extent to which discipline bridges that gap.

The conversation then evolved on my blog into the difference between risk and volatility and then -- in response to an article in The Wall Street Journal -- whether investors should invest money set aside for emergencies.

When people refer to emergency cash, they typically mean a sum of money that can pay three to six months of living expenses.

My response is that such funds, which could be needed immediately, should not be exposed to investments that can go down meaningfully in price and possibly take a long time to recover.

Today I'd like to return to the idea of disciplined investing. Investing discipline is often equated only with avoiding panic selling.

We all know that every so often the market goes down a lot and eventually comes back and goes on to new highs. But many investors forget this at the most crucial time: after a large decline but before the market recovers.

The reason for panic is many people have what seems like an instinctive fear of being wiped out financially and becoming homeless, penniless and hungry.

In a comment on my blog, one reader referred to this as "delusions of squalor." That kind of fear causes investors to abandon the very discipline that just a short while earlier they knew was the best thing for them.

There's another element to investing discipline: Sticking to one's strategy during a huge rally.


In 2008 many people were terrified to have any money in the stock market, but now The Wall Street Journal is discussing whether emergency money should be invested because of negative real returns on investors' cash positions.

From 1998 to 2000, how many people abandoned their discipline to cash in on the boom in Internet stocks? From 2005 to 2007 how many people overleveraged themselves to flip houses?

The emotion that drives this risk-taking is of course greed, but it comes from impatience. Investors forget what past bear markets feel like, they become complacent and then they become impatient. This ultimately leads them to abandon whatever strategy they initially decided, without emotion, was the best long-term solution for them.

The investment implication is that people load up on whatever the current fad is (the modern equivalent of Internet stocks) and get caught with too much exposure to that fad when the eventual downturn comes.

The combination of big returns for the large domestic indices, the underperformance of many nonindexing strategies (Bridgewater is reportedly negative for the year, and Seth Klarman is returning capital for a lack of investment ideas) and articles such as the one above from the Journal that validate impatience is making it more difficult to for investors to remain disciplined. The reality is that sometimes the best discipline is to do nothing, but this can be very difficult to do.

Picking a strategy and then sticking to it is so important because it best serves ones long-term objective. For most people this is simply having enough money saved for when they need it most -- in retirement.

If you already have a perfectly sound investment strategy that you know rationally is your best chance for success, then remember not to succumb to fear or impatience. These can be the biggest obstacles to success.

The strategy you choose may not be the best during certain periods, but it doesn't have to be. It simply needs to get the job done over the long haul.

Indexing has garnered a lot of positive attention this year because the S&P 500 is up so much, but of course it delivered very poor returns for much of the previous decade.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.



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