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Is There a Trustworthy Process Behind Your Investment Strategy?

Even during normal times, the stock market is unpredictable. But when you throw in a pandemic, things can really get crazy. Just look at the first quarter of 2020 when the market fell 35% in just 16 trading days. Then, when everyone assumed it would be a rough year to own stocks, the market ended the year up 16%.

It emphasized the futility of trying to predict the market, and the importance of having a trustworthy investing process. It’s one of the most important aspects of successful investing. Instead of relying on headlines, hot tips, or intuition to figure out what to invest in, find and follow a solid process that tells you what to invest in.

As I mentioned in last week’s post (See Investing in a Time of Plenty. What Could Go Wrong?), such a process is marked by four elements:

  • It’s objective and rules-based
  • You fully understand and agree with its design
  • It has a demonstrated track record of success
  • It’s emotionally acceptable to you

Here are several ways you could put such a process to work in your portfolio.

Self-managed. I don’t recommend trying to beat the market on your own. For most people, it’s too difficult to come up with a truly objective, rules-based process. Or, just when you think you have come up with such a process, you’ll find it too difficult to stay with it.

But it’s pretty simple to use a rules-based process to meet the market—that is, earn the market’s overall return, while also building in a little downside protection. First, determine your optimal asset allocation. Then build your portfolio, using index funds to spread your dollars across stocks and bonds accordingly. This could be done with just two or three funds — maybe 80% VTSAX and 20% VTIAX if your optimal asset allocation calls for 100% stocks. If it calls for the use of bonds, maybe VBTLX for the bond portion and then use the previous two funds split 80/20 across the stock portion (or their ETF equivalents).

An even easier approach would be to buy just one fund—a target-date mutual fund. Many fund companies offer such funds. The idea is to choose the one that has the year closest to the year you intend to retire as part of its name. Planning to retire in 20 years? Use the Fidelity Freedom 2040 Fund, the Vanguard Target-Retirement 2040 Fund, or a similar fund from another company. It will come pre-built with the stock/bond allocation the fund company believes is best for someone with your investment time horizon, and it will automatically make that allocation increasingly conservative as you near retirement.

But keep in mind that funds from two different companies, Vanguard and Fidelity, for example, very likely have a different stock/bond mix for funds with the same target date. So, choose a fund with the stock/bond mix that’s closest to your optimal asset allocation, even if its target date is a bit different than your intended retirement date.

The next two approaches rely on the help of an investment professional or a team of investment pros.

Self-managed, with help. This approach involves subscribing to an investment newsletter. (Full disclosure: I work for Sound Mind Investing, which publishes such a newsletter). You maintain an investment account at the broker of your choice, such as Fidelity, Vanguard, or Schwab, and you make your own trades. Those are the self-managed parts.

Then you would follow a strategy designed by the newsletter publisher and invest in the specific funds recommended by the newsletter. That’s the “help” part.

Investment newsletters charge a fee for a subscription. Some are relatively inexpensive, charging as little as $100 or $200 per year.

Advisor-managed. With this approach, an advisor will get to know you and your goals, develop an investment plan for you, and then manage your portfolio, choosing specific investments and executing the trades.

Advisors usually require that you have a certain amount of money for them to manage—often at least $100,000. Their fee is based on a percentage of the value of your portfolio—typically 1-1½%.

So, if you have $100,000 being managed by the advisor, you would pay $1,000 to $1,500 per year for their management of your portfolio.

Whether you choose to subscribe to an investment newsletter or work with an investment advisor, be sure to choose one who shares your biblical worldview.

I’m tempted to say the main benefit of choosing either of these last two approaches is that the investment professionals you’d be partnering with have access to more sophisticated investment approaches (i.e., value, momentum) designed to better meet your goals—whether that’s pursuing market-beating returns or gaining more downside protections.

That is a valid reason to go with either approach, but what’s at least equally valuable is having someone to walk with you through the investing journey. The greatest risk to your success as an investor is getting in your own way. Reading articles in the newsletter you subscribe to or talking with your investment advisor can be a very helpful form of accountability, encouragement, and education.

As the Bible says, “Plans succeed through good counsel.” – Proverbs 20:18

To navigate tough times in the stock market without making emotional decisions, it helps a lot to have a trustworthy investment process, and perhaps the help of a trustworthy investment professional.

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