– Ben Martens

Picking Stocks

A relative is going through a class in school where they are picking stocks to see who can make the most play money over the course of the class. On the surface, I think it’s a fine idea, but if this is the only exposure that the students have to the stock market, it might do more harm than good. Picking individual stocks is risky at best and pure gambling at worst. It can be a fun hobby but it should almost never be used as a real investment strategy. So what to do? I sent them some thoughts and figured I would post it here as well.

John Bogle, the visionary behind Vanguard, shares his wisdom in the book “The Little Book of Common Sense Investing” which I’ve written about before. It’s concise, backed by research, and a must-read for anyone thinking of investing their money. Bogle’s book dispels common myths about investing. Here’s the bottom line: picking individual stocks or relying on mutual funds managed by others is a losing game over the long haul. Sure, there might be temporary hot streaks, but consistently beating the market over decades is effectively impossible. The market wouldn’t work if it was possible to consistently beat it.

So, what’s the winning strategy? Low-cost, total market index funds.

  • Total Market Index Funds: These funds bundle everything in the stock market. When you invest in them, you’re effectively buying a slice of the entire economy. It’s the ultimate diversification.
  • Low-Cost: The fees associated with these funds are ridiculously low—around 0.03%. Why? Because there’s no human actively managing them. It’s all math, ensuring that the fund mirrors the composition of the entire US market. If a company represents 3% of the total US market, its stock will constitute 3% of the fund.

The only thing left at that point is to figure out which actual funds to buy. This is where strategies can vary a bit, but they’re generaly fairly similar. Here are two popular strategies:

  1. VTSAX and chill. This is the simplest version of investing. VTSAX is as low cost fund that covers the entire US economy. Buy this one fund, don’t touch it, and reap the benefits when you need the money.
  2. Split between US, international, and bonds. You can vary the percentages based on your stage in life, but here’s a good starting point:
    1. 70% VTI – Low cost, total US market index ETF.
    2. 10% VXUS – Low cost, total international market index ETF
    3. 20% BND – Low cost, total bond market index ETF

Of course it’s important to remeember that all of this investing has a bigger tax burden than tax-advantaged accounts like a 401k or IRA. Investing directly in the market is generally only something to consider after you’ve maxed out your better options. Financial health can feel overwhelming but as I’ve written about before, this flow chart does a great job of breaking it down. Or if that’s too much, start with Dave Ramsey’s 7 Steps.

I’m no expert and you shouldn’t blindly follow anything I’ve written here, but you should have your own opinions about this. If you’re going to rely on individual stocks, you should read Bogle’s book and be able to explain why you think he’s wrong. It’s so easy to get sucked into thinking this has to be complicated, but the complicated route will almost always lose you huge amounts of money down the road.