Investors, Listen to Einstein: Stop Repeating These Mistakes

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The way many investors manage their money seems to perfectly describe Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Here's what isn't working:

-- trying to predict when to enter and exit the markets

-- trying to pick outperforming stocks

-- trying to find the next "hot" fund manager

-- relying on "top mutual fund" recommendations

-- using a broker or advisor who claims to have the ability to "beat the markets"

-- overweighting your portfolio in certain asset classes, like gold

-- relying on the financial media for tips on stocks, interest rates and market direction

Misplaced reliance on Warren Buffett. When I give talks to investors and assert this position, the most common question I am asked is: "What about Warren Buffett?" The assumption is that Buffett is a great stock picker and many investors believe they (with the help of their advisor or broker) can emulate his performance. Brokers and much of the financial media do everything in their power to encourage this false belief.

Buffett is besieged with questions about investing by those who assume he has some special insight into the market. Instead of responding to these questions -- questions like, "How will Russia's military advance in Ukraine affect the market?" -- he counsels investors to focus on the long term and not to react to current events. His 2013 annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway investors dwells on his 1986 purchase of a 400-acre farm for $280,000. He still owns this farm today, and it has appreciated substantially in value.

Instead of concentrating on Buffett's stock-picking ability, investors would be wise to heed this advice in his letter to shareholders: "Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time." He counsels against listening to "pundits" or -- worse still -- acting on their comments.

Think about that advice. The "sage of Omaha" is telling you to ignore pundits. Yet, the financial media usually emphasizes the short term. Much of this coverage relies on the opinions of pundits who comment on everything from which stocks to buy now to when the market correction will begin.

Buffett is very precise in telling investors how to invest. He says, "... the know-nothing investor who both diversifies and keeps his costs minimal is virtually certain to get satisfactory results."

The next time someone gives you advice on how to pick stocks "just like Buffett," tell them that is exactly what you are doing by buying stock and bond index funds with low management fees.

The cost of ignoring this advice. According to a July 2014 report, "How Much Should People Save?" issued by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, a staggering 50 percent of today's working families are at risk of not being able to maintain their standard of living in retirement. The study notes these depressing facts:

-- Half of private-sector employees don't have an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

-- Many who do have a plan save "relatively little."

If those families want to avoid a sad fate in retirement, the study recommends the following:

-- Employees should plan on supplementing Social Security in retirement.

-- Households should plan on needing between 25 percent and 50 percent of their retirement income from retirement savings plans.

-- The typical household will need to save about 15 percent of earnings annually.

-- Those with a current savings shortfall will have to increase savings or work longer.

Here's what's missing from these recommendations. If you want to retire at all -- much less with dignity -- you need to fundamentally change the way you invest. The cost of listening to pundits and brokers, who tell you they can "beat the market," is the impact on the amount of money you can save for retirement. A study by Kenneth French, a professor of finance at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University, quantified these costs.

French found that active investors transfer $80 billion annually to sellers of actively managed funds and market makers. That's $80 billion a year that could be in investors' pockets instead of funding their brokers' BMW or vacation home.

It's important for you to recognize what's working and what isn't. If you do an objective examination of your current investing strategy, you may conclude that a major shift is required in order to reach your retirement goals.

Dan Solin is the director of investor advocacy for the BAM ALLIANCE and a wealth advisor with Buckingham. He is a New York Times best-selling author of the Smartest series of books. His latest book is "The Smartest Sales Book You'll Ever Read."

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