Given the poor performance of the stock market in 2008, its time to go back to the investment basics and make sure you don’t forget the important stuff.
1. Only invest in companies that pay a decent dividend (at least 3%) and that have a long history of increasing their dividend.
You should consider share buybacks when measuring the dividend yield. This criteria achieves several goals. Its narrows your possible choices substantially, providing you an investment “universe” that’s more manageable.
It also automatically prevents you from buying stocks that are speculative or overpriced. If the company is cooking the books, it cannot maintain its dividend. Companies like AOL or MCI Worldcomm were reporting record profits during the Tech bubble (and so was Enron during a later period) when in fact, they were booking large losses. Since they weren’t paying out any dividends they were able to get away with the fraud for a lot longer than otherwise possible.
Investing in dividend-paying companies greatly reduces the odds that your account will ever show a loss. Earning 3% a year isn’t much, but it adds up, especially if the company continues to increase its dividend. After a year or two, even if the share price dips, you’ll probably still show a gain, thanks to the dividend.
2. Out of the companies that are paying a good dividend, only buy companies whose businesses you’re able to easily understand and that you judge to have a solid competitive advantage.
To increase your understanding, read the company’s 10K (annual report) filed with the SEC. You can get a copy online for free at the companies website or the SEC’s website. If you’re not willing to spend an hour or two reading a company’s 10K, are you really ready to invest 4%-6% of your life savings in its stock? It’s surprising that investors will readily pile money into companies that they don’t understand, and that they make no effort to understand.
Note, I’m not talking about trading here. I’m talking about investing – buying a position and keeping it for years.
3. Only buy stocks when they are very attractively priced, i.e. when there’s a substantial margin of safety in the stock.
Benjamin Graham (The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel) was a huge proponent of Margin of Safety (Margin of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing Strategies for the Thoughtful Investor), which means you should buy a stock when it is worth more than its market price.
This step makes it nearly impossible for you to lose money investing and will ensure you garner the benefits of compounding, because your entry price will be small relative to the company’s assets and future earnings.
It’s very hard for anyone to beat the compound returns of high-quality common stocks held for the long term. If you will follow these three simple rules – good dividends, understandable businesses with competitive advantages, and buying only at very safe prices – you can achieve world-class investment results.
Now if I could only follow this advice!