Buyers act differently than owners.
That applies to homes, cars, investments and much more.
To persuade you to buy, something has to meet the right conditions. It must be pristine, perfect, just the right thing, exactly what you are looking for, or some combination of those things.
Those standards fall once someone becomes an owner. The car is allowed to get dirty, dust bunnies thrive under the furniture, the mutual fund isn’t sold just because its ratings slip a little. The imperfections represent “character” and “acceptable” takes over for “perfect” or even “just right.”
John P. of New Orleans hopes to be an owner of an investment portfolio someday, but for now he’s just trying to buy a few investments he can believe in and have them turn out right.
Last week, when he saw my instructions and five-question test for cleaning up a portfolio, he knew that would work for him eventually, but that he needed something different – something for a buyer – right now.
“You said that investors should write down why they buy a security and list everything they’re thinking,” said John P. by e-mail. “I want to make that list so that I can use it like you said in the future. … So what exactly should be on it?”
I have always recommended that investors list the reasoning behind their purchases, and file that thinking away for the future, because it will help them answer the key question of “Would you buy this again today?”
During a decade of writing the “Stupid Investment of the Week” column, I saw that asking a lot of questions is the key to avoiding bad investment decisions.
Making a self-questionnaire part of your investment process, therefore, is a big help in making sure proper thought and foresight goes into each security you buy.
Here are the six questions I believe investors should answer in writing before buying a stock or a mutual fund.
If your answers look good – if they would explain your decisions and actions to your loved ones — chances are good that the investment fits your profile and is appropriate for your risk tolerance.
If you look back at a past investment and see that the answers no longer apply – and some of them are more about you than about the security itself – there’s a good chance that the investment no longer passes the high standard of a buyer. That’s a sign that it’s time to consider a change.
∙ Why this investment?
This starts with your investment thesis, the reasons you are interested in this specific stock, fund, ETF or investment program now.
But once you write out your thinking, look too at your personal reasons for making the purchase.
John P., for example, as something of a beginner, may need to find mutual funds with a low minimum initial investment; years later, as assets have grown, account size stops being a factor.
Perhaps a broker or adviser suggested the security, or you heard about it from an expert in an article or a podcast. If you stop working with the planner, if the expert moves on, your reasons for buying may lose their foothold.
Also, as investors age, their objectives change. Without a good reason for owning something, you may have bad reasons to hang on.
∙ Why now?
Know what attracts you, what makes you say, “I want to own this.”
Maybe a fund or ETF gets a high rating from Morningstar or Lipper, perhaps you saw a pundit on television. You might be drawn to low price-earnings ratios or high yields.
Figure out why something stands out to you right now.
If you don’t have good reason to buy now, look for a more-compelling investment that you have more interest and confidence in.
∙ Why not?
There are two sides to every trade on Wall Street, so flip things around and play devil’s advocate.
Make the case against an investment. If it feels hollow and fake, that’s good; if it feels real and probable, move on.
These days, for example, some investors are bottom-fishing the beaten-down stocks of cruise-ship companies, airlines and hoteliers. They’re getting bargain-basement prices, but the why-not could be the time it may take for the economy to come around and the travel industry to recover.
If you make the investment but the potential troubles start looking real, it may be the devil coming to get his investment due.
∙ What do you expect to happen?
Set out some expectations for performance.
You might, for example, expect a mutual fund to be in the top 25% of its peer group over the next five years, or perhaps you’re looking for a consistent, stable yield from a stock, even if there’s not much price appreciation.
Don’t be Pollyanna, just frame expectations; someday that will help you see if the investment is actually meeting them.
∙ What would make me satisfied/dissatisfied?
This is about gauging your progress/happiness in the future (but it helps you see in advance if something will be worthwhile).
If a mutual fund is above-average for its category, it might be okay even if it can’t consistently hit the top quartile of its peer group. But if it lags both your expectations and the competition over, say, 24 to 36 months, that would leave you frustrated.
Likewise, a dividend-stock that delivers the income without much price appreciation may be an okay hold, but if the distribution is cut that might be enough to make you want to go.
Your setting hurdles the investment must clear to be worth holding onto.
∙ What’s the worst-case scenario?
Identify the worst outcome and decide if your expectations are worth the potential risk. You also identify the trouble to look out for.
In the end, your answers should leave you confident; lacking that, you’re making a less-than-ideal investment decision. If reviewing your answers in the future proves that your logic and confidence are intact, the security is meeting the higher buyer’s standard and you can continue riding with it.