Why the Slowest Investors Win the Race

Anyone who attended kindergarten remembers Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare. The story's moral has implications for investors: Slow but steady wins the race.

Hare investors try to sprint to the finish line of a comfortable retirement without girding their portfolios against the perils of volatility — frequent ups and downs in asset value. So they tend to lag far behind tortoise investors, who take these precautions, which I'll explain in a moment.

Volatility reflects uncertainty, and markets tend to punish uncertainty with lower prices. Yet just because an investment is volatile doesn't mean it has no place in your portfolio. Because they may be less likely to go down with other assets in the portfolio, volatile investments may add highly beneficial variety, known as diversification.

Let's say you own tech stocks like Apple and IBM. Adding more tech stocks to your portfolio doesn't decrease overall risk, so you add a gold-mining stock instead. Though highly volatile in itself, the gold-mining stock is less likely to go up or down with tech stocks, so it increases the portfolio's diversification.

Because there's little correlation between gold-mining stocks' price movements with those of tech stocks, these categories are said to have a low correlation. That sounds complicated, but you can easily look up the differences in price movements between different types of investments to see whether they're correlated, and if so, how closely.

Aware of the downsides of volatility, tortoises avoid it by assembling highly diversified portfolios. That means traditional investments such as U.S. stocks and bonds, mixed with a dash of non-traditional (alternative) assets. These may include emerging market stocks, Treasury bonds and real estate securities. The price movements of these investments have a history of not being highly correlated with U.S. stocks or bonds.

Tortoises are like a savvy retailer on a tropical resort island who wisely sells umbrellas as well as sunscreen to help cover losses during rainy periods. Every once in while, the rain falls on everything -- which is what happened in late 2008, much to the dismay of investors. In the financial meltdown, stocks, bonds and real estate both in the US and abroad swooned, leaving little quarter for investors.

Tortoise-style investors add a touch of alternative investments, knowing this may cut their overall returns some years, but they'll sleep more peacefully with the knowledge that it can counter-balance heavy losses in traditional investments.

Hares aren't focused on this balanced approach. Instead, they assemble highly aggressive portfolios of assets that tend to rise or fall in lockstep. They're not concerned with cutting their losses because, compelled by greed, they're not planning to have any losses ior they believe they can defy gravity. This was not unlike the employees who loaded up on their company's shares before the recession, only to see their investment go south along with their job.

Like the Aesop's hare, hare investors are overconfident and turn a blind eye to the ravages of volatility, which take a long time to recover from. Tortoises, having sustained less damage, continue their slow but steady progress.

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