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The dominant advice on this site (including that which I give to novices) regarding investing is to only invest in fund vehicles (mutual funds, ETFs, etc), rather than in individual stocks.

Why is that? With all the successful investors (including myself on a not-infrequent basis) going for individual companies directly, wouldn't it make more sense to suggest that new investors learn how to analyse companies and then make their best guess after taking into account those factors?

  • @sdg I am reading the OP's comment as either "superstar investors" or as "successful" meaning making money, not necessarily beating the market. – JAGAnalyst Mar 13 '13 at 14:22
  • @JAGAnalyst - the second is what I was going for: "successful" in the sense you are making money in the market on your own, perhaps beating (or not) the market – warren Mar 13 '13 at 17:30
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Great question! While investing in individual stocks can be very useful as a learning experience, my opinion is that concentrating an entire portfolio in a few companies' stock is a mistake for most investors, and especially for a novice for several reasons. After all, only a handful of professional investors have ever beaten the market over the long term by picking stocks, so is it really worth trying? If you could, I'd say go work on Wall Street and good luck to you.

Diversification

For many investors, diversification is an important reason to use an ETF or index fund. If they were to focus on a few sectors or companies, it is more likely that they would have a lop-sided risk profile and might be subject to a larger downside risk potential than the market as a whole, i.e. "don't put all your eggs in one basket". Diversification is important because of the nature of compound investing - if you take a significant hit, it will take you a long time to recover because all of your future gains are building off of a smaller base. This is one reason that younger investors often take a larger position in equities, as they have longer to recover from significant market declines. While it is very possible to build a balanced, diversified portfolio from individual stocks, this isn't something I'd recommend for a new investor and would require a substantial college-level understanding of investments, and in any case, this portfolio would have a more discrete efficient frontier than the market as a whole.

Lower Volatility

Picking individual stocks or sectors would could also significantly increase or decrease the overall volatility of the portfolio relative to the market, especially if the stocks are highly cyclical or correlated to the same market factors. So if they are buying tech stocks, they might see bigger upswings and downswings compared to the market as a whole, or see the opposite effect in the case of utilities. In other words, owning a basket of individual stocks may result in an unintended volatility/beta profile.

Lower Trading Costs and Taxes

Investors who buy individual stocks tend to trade more in an attempt to beat the market. After accounting for commission fees, transaction costs (bid/ask spread), and taxes, most individual investors get only a fraction of the market average return. One famous academic study finds that investors who trade more trail the stock market more. Trading also tends to incur higher taxes since short term gains (<1 year) are taxed at marginal income tax rates that are higher than long term capital gains.

Investors tend to trade due to behavioral failures such as trying to time the market, being overconfident, speculating on stocks instead of long-term investing, following what everyone else is doing, and getting in and out of the market as a result of an emotional reaction to volatility (ie buying when stocks are high/rising and selling when they are low/falling). Investing in index funds can involve minimal fees and discourages behavior that causes investors to incur excessive trading costs. This can make a big difference over the long run as extra costs and taxes compound significantly over time.

It's Hard to Beat the Market since Markets are Quite Efficient

Another reason to use funds is that it is reasonable to assume that at any point in time, the market does a fairly good job of pricing securities based on all known information. In other words, if a given stock is trading at a low P/E relative to the market, the market as a whole has decided that there is good reason for this valuation. This idea is based on the assumption that there are already so many professional analysts and traders looking for arbitrage opportunities that few such opportunities exist, and where they do exist, persist for only a short time. If you accept this theory generally (obviously, the market is not perfect), there is very little in the way of insight on pricing that the average novice investor could provide given limited knowledge of the markets and only a few hours of research. It might be more likely that opportunities identified by the novice would reflect omissions of relevant information. Trying to make money in this way then becomes a bet that other informed, professional investors are wrong and you are right (options traders, for example).

Prices are Unpredictable (Behave Like "Random" Walks)

If you want to make money as a long-term investor/owner rather than a speculator/trader, than most of the future change in asset prices will be a result of future events and information that is not yet known. Since no one knows how the world will change or who will be tomorrow's winners or losers, much less in 30 years, this is sometimes referred to as a "random walk." You can point to fundamental analysis and say "X company has great free cash flow, so I will invest in them", but ultimately, the problem with this type of analysis is that everyone else has already done it too. For example, Warren Buffett famously already knows the price at which he'd buy every company he's interested in buying. When everyone else can do the same analysis as you, the price already reflects the market's take on that public information (Efficent Market theory), and what is left is the unknown (I wouldn't use the term "random").

Overall, I think there is simply a very large potential for an individual investor to make a few mistakes with individual stocks over 20+ years that will really cost a lot, and I think most investors want a balance of risk and return versus the largest possible return, and don't have an interest in developing a professional knowledge of stocks. I think a better strategy for most investors is to share in the future profits of companies buy holding a well-diversified portfolio for the long term and to avoid making a large number of decisions about which stocks to own.

16

No. You're lucky, maybe, but not really a successful investor. Warren Buffet is, you're not him.

Sometimes it is easier to pick stocks to bid on, sometimes its harder. I got my successes too. It is easier on a raising market, especially when it is recovering after a deep fall, like now. But generally it is very hard to beat the market.

You need to remember that an individual investor, not backed by deep pockets, algo-trading and an army of analysts, is in a disadvantage on the market by definition.

So what can you do? Get the deep pockets, algo-trading and an army of analysts. How? By pooling with others - investing through funds.

9

Why is that? With all the successful investors (including myself on a not-infrequent basis) going for individual companies directly, wouldn't it make more sense to suggest that new investors learn how to analyse companies and then make their best guess after taking into account those factors?

I have a different perspective here than the other answers.

I recently started investing in a Roth IRA for retirement. I do not have interest in micromanaging individual company research (I don't find this enjoyable at all) but I know I want to save for retirement. Could I learn all the details? Probably, as an engineer/software person I suspect I could. But I really don't want to.

But here's the thing:

  • It is easy for me to invest into a target retirement mutual fund account

For anyone else in a similar situation to me, the net return on investing into a mutual fund type arrangement (even if it returns only 4%) is still likely considerably higher than the return on trying to invest in stocks (which likely results in $0 invested, and a return of 0%).

I suspect the overwhelming majority of people in the world are more similar to me than you - in that they have minimal interest in spending hours managing their money. For us, mutual funds or ETFs are perfect for this.

4

I agree with the other answers, but I want to give a slightly different perspective. I believe that a lot of people are smart enough to beat the market, but that it takes a lot more dedication, patience, and self-control than they think.

Before Warren Buffett buys a stock, he has read the quarterly reports for years, has personally met with management, has visited facilities, etc. If you aren't willing to do that kind of analysis for every stock you buy, then I think that you are doing little more than gambling. If you are just using the information that everyone else has, then you'll get the returns that everyone else gets (if you're lucky).

4

Cost.

If an investor wanted to diversify his portfolio by investing in the companies that make up the S&P 500, the per-share and commission costs to individually place trades for each and every one of those companies would be prohibitive. I can buy one share of an exchange-traded fund that tracks the S&P 500 for less than the purchase price of a single share in some of the companies that make up the index.

0

I'll give the TLDR answer.

1) You can't forecast the price direction. If you get it right you got lucky. If you think you get it right consistently you are either a statistical anomaly or a victim of confirmation bias. Countless academic studies show that you can not do this.

2) You reduce volatility and, importantly, left-tail risk by going to an index tracking ETF or mutual fund. That is, Probability(Gigantic Loss) is MUCH lower in an index tracker. What's the trade off? The good thing is there is NO tradeoff. Your expected return does not go down in the same way the risk goes down!

3) Since point (1) is true, you are wasting time analysing companies. This has the opportunity cost of not earning $ from doing paid work, which can be thought of as a negative return.

"With all the successful investors (including myself on a not-infrequent basis) going for individual companies directly" Actually, academic studies show that individual investors are the worst performers of all investors in the stock market.

  • 3
    Care to give some sources? I do agree with your points but it just feels better if you could at least mention who's done recent studies on that topic. – hroptatyr Sep 5 '13 at 7:43
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Funds - especially index funds - are a safe way for beginning investors to get a diversified investment across a lot of the stock market. They are not the perfect investment, but they are better than the majority of mutual funds, and you do not spend a lot of money in fees. Compared to the alternative - buying individual stocks based on what a friend tells you or buying a "hot" mutual fund - it's a great choice for a lot of people.

If you are willing to do some study, you can do better - quite a bit better - with common stocks. As an individual investor, you have some structural advantages; you can take significant (to you) positions in small-cap companies, while this is not practical for large institutional investors or mutual fund managers.

However, you can also lose a lot of money quickly in individual stocks. It pays to go slow and to your homework, however, and make sure that you are investing, not speculating. I like fool.com as a good place to start, and subscribe to a couple of their newsletters. I will note that investing is not for the faint of heart; to do well, you may need to do the opposite of what everybody else is doing; buying when the market is down and selling when the market is high.

A few people mentioned the efficient market hypothesis. There is ample evidence that the market is not efficient; the existence of the .com and mortgage bubbles makes it pretty obvious that the market is often not rationally valued, and a couple of hedge funds profited in the billions from this.

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