This article was first published in the National Post on October 24, 2020. It is being republished with permission.
by Tom Bradley
Interest in investing is hitting new highs. Discount brokers are flooded with applications and trading volumes are surging. Despite this renewed focus, some misunderstandings persist about the realities of investing.
To illustrate, let’s deconstruct an investment conversation that you might have with a friend, colleague, or advisor. It goes like this. “A guy on TV says the economy is strong and stocks are going up. It seems like a good time to invest. I don’t see much downside so I’m buying high-dividend stocks for my RRSP.”
A guy on TV
Many investors think there are people who know where the market is going. Experts who know something the rest of us don’t. The reality is, they don’t. Their insights may be interesting and unique, but any conclusions related to market timing aren’t worth the cup of coffee you’re drinking. It’s impossible to call the market level a week, month or even year from now with enough consistency to be useful. Stock prices are determined by a myriad of factors, many of which we’re unaware of until after they’ve emerged.
The economy looks good. I’m buying.
At the core of most market calls is an economic forecast. This is unfortunate because the connection between what the economy is doing and where the stock market is going is flimsy at best. It’s true that economic activity affects corporate profits, which ultimately drive stock prices, but the relationship is sloppy and unpredictable. Consider the last decade — we had the slowest economic recovery in history and yet profit margins were at or near record levels throughout, as were stock prices.
It bears repeating. Mr. Market is not paying attention to today’s economic headlines. He’s focusing on what the news might be in 12 to 18 months. The corporations you’re investing in aren’t reading the headlines either. They’re too busy trying to move their businesses ahead.
A good time to invest
For an investor with a multi-decade time frame, anytime is a good time. Some points in time, however, will be more prospective than others. These are periods when returns are projected to be higher based on fundamentals like rising profitability, low valuations and/or extremely negative investor sentiment. To be clear, these factors won’t tell you what’s about to happen, but will provide a tailwind over the next three to five years.
Not much downside
When you own a stock, the range of possible outcomes is always wider than you expect. It’s hard to conceive of a holding going down 20, 30 or 40%, especially when things are going well. Unfortunately, recent price moves have no predictive value, they just provide false comfort.
The future for a stock that has recently done well is just as uncertain as one that hasn’t. Indeed, it may be riskier because its price-to-earnings multiple is higher (if profits haven’t kept up with the stock price), its dividend yield is lower and shareholders’ risk aversion, a necessary ingredient for good returns, has melted into complacency.
The higher the better
We all love dividends, but too many investors choose stocks based solely on yield. This is a problem because yield is not a measure of value for a stock like it is for a bond. A company’s worth is derived from it’s potential to earn profits into the future. Dividends are simply the portion of those earnings that get distributed to shareholders.
Yield-obsessed investors often downplay the importance of the stocks’ second source of return — price appreciation. Ask yourself the question: What would you rather have, a $10 stock yielding 5% that’s worth $8, or a $10 stock with a 3% yield that’s worth $12?
If you want to focus on dividend income, start with a list of stocks that have an acceptable yield. From there build a diversified portfolio of holdings that are trading at or below what they’re worth.
In your RRSP?
When asked, “What should I do in my RRSP (or TFSA),” I have only one answer. The most important thing driving your RRSP strategy is the strategy you’re pursuing for your overall portfolio (including other registered accounts, taxable accounts, pensions and income properties). Anything you do in your RRSP has to roll up into your household asset mix. In that vein, RRSP contributions are a wonderful tool for adjusting your overall portfolio because transactions have no tax consequences.
Investing is hard enough without basing decisions on false premises. If you find yourself listening to someone pontificate about where the market is going, try to change the subject or look for an escape.
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