Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Wisdom of Salmon

About ten minutes after putting up the last post, I came across this relevant passage from Felix Salmon:
What’s more, everybody wants to be invested in stocks when the market’s going up — just not when it’s going down. Is it possible to actively manage your 401(k) so that you try to go long stocks when they’re going up and then move to cash or bonds when stocks are falling? Well, you can try. But that’s called timing the market, and it tends to end in tears. You are not a hedge-fund manager, and even they get these things wrong. Don’t think you can time the market, because you can’t. So if you want to be invested in up markets, you have to be invested in down markets, too. And as the chart shows, your retirement account will tend to grow most of the time anyway.

The main reason for this is that we’re not just sitting back and hoping that the stock market will do all the heavy lifting. Every paycheck, we’re putting money into our 401(k) accounts — about 8.7% of what we earn, on average. And so every quarter, we see our balance rise not just because we’re great at investing, but also because we’re manually adding to the pot.

And in fact that second aspect of saving for retirement is significantly more important — and much more under our own control — than the first aspect. When it comes to our 401(k) plans, people tend to focus far too much on the quarter-to-quarter fluctuations in mark-to-market asset value, rather than trying simply to save as much money as they can for when they’re older. My advice is to think of a retirement account like a piggy bank: you put money in there on a regular basis, and eventually it grows to a substantial sum. Once it’s in there, of course, you try to invest in something reasonably sensible — target-date funds are a pretty good idea, so long as their fees are low. But you don’t have much control over the internal returns on your retirement funds; you do have control over how much you save. So concentrate on the latter more than the former.

No comments:

Post a Comment