4 habits of successful investors
作者：Emory Thomas Jr
Top traders don't rely on exotic rituals, just the simple routines that ensure they always know how they stand and where they're going.
Emory Thomas Jr. is a veteran business writer and editor who has worked for MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets. He was formerly vice president-product management for Business.com, a leading business information site. In 1992 and 1993, he won Gerald Loeb awards for his investigative reporting. He now lives in Seattle.
Search Barlett's Quotations for the word "habit," and more than 300 passages pop up. "Nothing is stronger than a habit," intones the Roman poet Ovid. And according to Aristotle, "Good habits formed at youth make all the difference."
For investors, do good habits formed early make all the difference?
In a word, yes. Nothing is more important in investing than solid, well-thought-out planning. But all the planning in the world fails without the right follow-through -- the right habits to serve and feed those plans.
In search of the daily, monthly and yearly routines that are feeding the returns of top investors, we found four of the most helpful and potentially profitable.
Keep a diary
Bert Dohmen, founder of Dohmen Capital, has a single requirement of new hires to his Los Angeles investment firm: "Get yourself a spiral notebook for a dollar," he tells them. "Keep a daily trading diary. Write down what happened in the market each day and what you did and thought."
The point of the exercise is twofold: to learn from your past mistakes and to force yourself to collect your thoughts.
Jeffrey Saut, market strategist for Raymond James, says his own spiral notebooks date back to 1962. "Yep, I do refer back to them," he insists.
MSN Money columnist Jon Markman, who recently launched his own hedge fund, says he writes notes on every trade he makes. And the lessons are sometimes right at the surface, easy to harvest.
"For instance," Markman told me in an e-mail exchange recently, "I made pretty good money on AMR Corp. (AMR, news, msgs) calls. When the stock (of the American Airlines parent) was at around $2, I bought calls, and I sold it when it got to $3.75 or so ... was pretty happy with my gain.
"But then the news played out as I expected (flight attendants signed on to pact, company avoided bankruptcy) . . . and I didn't buy it again, or buy more. I sold. I limited my gains even though the news trend/stock trend was with me. I flinched. I took profits when I should have been piling on.
"That is something to learn about yourself."
Most investors don't, and shouldn't, trade every day, as Dohmen and Markman do. But that $1 spiral notebook is no less valuable to the less-active investor. The mood of the market, and our perspective on it, is constantly evolving -- just like our views.
By recording those views now, you can judge them later, gaining important new insights.
Clearly, it's important to know how you're performing as an investor. It sounds simple. But it isn't.
Here are four key steps you have to take.
Step 1: Pick the right time frame. The pros tend to examine their holdings daily, or at least as often as weekly. Most of us don't need to peek so often. In fact, many investment advisers insist it's a grave mistake to evaluate your investments more than once a month.
"Daily? That's about the worst habit you could have," says Ed Osborn, principal in the San Francisco investment firm of Bingham, Osborn & Scarborough. "Quarterly would be good. Yearly would be fine, probably."
If you watch those numbers tick every day, you'll be overwhelmed by the noise. Pretty soon, you'll be taking action based on that noise. And the result is likely to be as messy as the noise itself.
Step 2: Be brutally honest. Take stock of all your accounts together, and evaluate them as a whole. Osborn finds that many of his clients tend to examine only their stock holdings or only their retirement accounts. It's important to put all your investments in one big basket and examine their performance as a whole. And if you're taking money out of your investments for spending, make all your withdrawals from a single account; otherwise, it's too hard to track performance.
Meantime, remember that the name of the game is appreciation. It's not good enough to see that five of your seven stock or mutual-fund holdings gained this quarter. If the other two performed poorly enough, you may have lost money overall.
Step 3: Pick the right yardstick. How do you decide whether you're winning or losing? Warren Buffett's two rules of investment come to mind: Rule No. 1: Don't lose money. Rule No. 2: Don't forget Rule No. 1. But it's not that simple, of course. You need to pick an appropriate yardstick to measure against. Some advisers suggest aiming for a particular percentage gain -- say, 6% a year for your portfolio overall.
That's fine, but you have to realize that in certain market years, even if your investments are truly diversified, your portfolio won't gain that much. In fact, it may take you a decade or longer to know if you're really meeting your long-term performance goals. Osborn suggests measuring your portfolio performance primarily against risk metrics. "Don't let it move up or down more than 5% in any quarter," he says. By limiting the risk, you can come closer to guaranteeing a certain standard of historical performance, he argues.
Step 4: Start keeping score. With the right time frame, a full data set and the right yardstick in place, you can begin keeping score. There are countless ways to do it. For many, that spiral notebook may work fine.
But for a more sophisticated view, use software such as Microsoft's Money or Intuit's Quicken to help you slice and dice the data. (Editor's note: Microsoft is the parent of MSN Money.) This Web site's Portfolio Manager is another good tool. The key is to pick a system and stick with it -- and sooner rather than later.
Read extensively but selectively
The world is filled with two types of readers -- the voracious and the selective. Most of us need to split the difference.
Mark Greenberg, manager of the Invesco Leisure fund (FLISX), is voracious. He wakes every morning in Denver at about 5 a.m. to read the two local papers and the New York Times. He skims the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times at his office (finishing them, cover-to-cover, at night). He reads trade magazines in bed at night and hauls up to 20 pounds of reading material on every plane flight. "I'm omnivorous," he says. "I think everything's a learning opportunity."
Let's face it. Most of us can't -- or won't -- go at that pace, and for good reason. Information overload can mislead us into believing we know more than we do. As Osborn, the financial adviser, says, "No matter how much you read, you'll never catch up to what the market knows."
That said, every investor needs a reading routine. Like the scorekeeping routine above, it needs to be orderly, rational and consistent.
Four suggestions for setting that routine:
First and foremost, set aside a consistent amount of time each day for reading, and make a conscious decision about what's most important for you to read. It's all too easy to read whatever is in front of us, much of which is useless.
Read enough to know where the market is going in general. "Most importantly," says Saut, the investment strategist for Raymond James, "you need to have framed the primary trend of the market." At the very least, you'll need to know how the market is performing in order to measure your own portfolio's performance.
Read about your own investments. A mutual fund you own changes managers, or a stock you own is acquired. We need to know the big changes to manage our investments smartly.
Don't waste time on the small stuff. A big up day or down day on Wall Street shouldn't distract you. One new economic data point, no matter how much it affects stock or bond values the day it's released, shouldn't be allowed to force your hand. It's better off ignored.
Take stock once a year
Once every year, set aside a significant amount of time to evaluate your investment strategies. This isn't about keeping score. It's about examining the big picture.
Brett Steenbarger, a psychologist and day trader who studies the effects of emotion on the stock market, uses tax time for his big, yearly investment review.
"I do my own income taxes," he told me recently. "I have hundreds of trades per year, and I don't use any software to do my taxes. I go over every single trade over the year, to analyze what I did right and wrong, to try to look for the big themes."
Be forewarned: This approach can be really humbling.
Two years ago, Steenbarger found that while most of his trades had been profitable, a "relative handful" was very costly, dragging down the overall portfolio. So he adjusted, putting in place some personal rules for setting stops that would limit the losses he could take in any single investment.
So when is the best time for this annual habit? Tax time, New Year's and early fall/late summer tend to work best for most.
But as with any of these four key habits, as Osborn says, "The best time to do it is whatever time you're actually going to do it."