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Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

My farewell advice: diversify

October 8, 2001

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You never know, you never know.

When writing about investments, how often have I said that it's useless to predict? Remember the ad that I saw in The Financial Times: the Clairvoyance Society of Greater London will not meet next Tuesday because of unforeseen circumstances.

This is my last column for this newspaper. I am not repeat, not retiring! I'll still be writing my regular columns for Newsweek magazine and Good Housekeeping (which I hope you'll read).

But after 27 years of writing for newspapers twice a week, as well as for two magazines, I'm cutting back. As my husband puts it, I'm reducing my working hours to just 40 a week.

I've loved writing this column and am going to miss it. I'll miss every reader. I'll miss the letters you write, including those that disagree. It's the people with different points of view who make you think.

World of unexpected

The thought I'd most like to leave you with was thrown into the starkest possible relief three weeks ago when America came under terrorist attack. No one knows what's going to happen in money as in life.

Speaking only of finances, that's why you should never bet everything on a single card.

Some lucky people do, and win.

For example, you got lucky if you bet your 401(k) on your company's rising stock, then retired and diversified into mutual funds before the stock dropped.

You got lucky if you rode a few tech stocks to triple-digit returns, then used your profits to buy a vacation home or pay off debt.

But luck isn't a strategy. It's only luck.

In a New York diner where I often go for a soda after a movie, the night waiter, a man in his late 40s, suffers visibly from guilt and fear.

He'd built his net worth to $149,000 for him and his family, a fortune and a future. Then he put it all into Cisco at the market top. Now he's worth $23,000 and his dreams are dead. He doesn't understand how he could have lost so much in such a famous stock.

During those golden years especially 1999 to early 2000 it sounded wimpy to talk about mutual funds, diversification, bonds and risk control.

Even after the financial bubble burst 18 months ago, investors still dreamed that things would soon get back to normal (meaning Cisco at $80).

But there is no "normal." For a while things go one way, then they go another. Then they go a third way. No one announces the change of direction in advance. You have to be prepared for many possibilities.

Looked at historically, stocks in general look buyable to me today.

We've endured a significant bear market. Standard & Poor's index of 500 leading stocks dropped 37 percent from its peak. Nasdaq, down 72 percent, had been all but wiped out.

What's amazing is that most individuals haven't panicked and sold. A modest amount of individual money left stock-owning mutual funds in recent weeks. In general, however, people merely have failed to buy.

The terror attacks clearly damaged the U.S. economy. Unemployment will reach higher levels than economists generally expected so it's a good time to save more money and pay off debt.

Housing prices won't be rising as fast as they did before so it's a bad time for taking the maximum home-equity loan.

We have no idea how long business will stall. The sooner we see what kind of military retaliation the Bush administration has in mind and trusting that we judge it sound the sooner the economy will start to recover.

Until then, uncertainty reigns.

Advice: Buy stocks

When I say I think stocks are buyable, I'm assuming that the recession will end some time next year.

Stocks usually rise three to six months before the economy does.

Investors who buy stocks gradually during the next few months, including participants in mutual funds in 401(k)s, should get an attractive, average price.

But remember that's a strategy, not a forecast. I keep a percentage of my money in short- and intermediate-term bond mutual funds, in case I'm wrong.

Strategic stock investors buy the market as a whole. Any individual stock even a blue chip may succeed or fail during the next 10 years. The only thing that's reasonably sure to work is owning stocks in general.

You buy stocks in general through an index mutual fund. One of my favorites: Vanguard's Total Stock Market Index Fund.

So there you are my last piece of advice! I wish you all wealth and health, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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