Maybe a lost decade for stocks, but not for investors

Posted by on September 28, 2011 @ 2:02 pm in Investing

In the past, I have expressed frustration with the financial press’s coverage of investment topics (Clearing the air on target date performance), and I’ve also blogged about how I feel investors are best served by ignoring financial pundits (Listening to the markets—not the pundits).

But occasionally, a fleeting glimpse of a longer-term, clearer reality is visible beneath the smoke and ashes of the “financial catastrophe of the week” featured in the headlines. It’s worth pointing it out when it happens—such as in the article Mixed emotions on our anniversary, which ran in the September 11 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article offered a real-life example of what a long-term investment strategy can mean for an employee who makes a biweekly contribution of $250 to their 401(k) and gets a $125 employer match.

I got curious about the points in the WSJ article and worked up the data for a 60/40 portfolio of stocks and bonds, based on total returns for the S&P 500 Index and the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. My example provides that an employee opened a 401(k) account and made $250 contributions (as well as the $125 match), invested once every 14 days and never rebalanced, from 9/13/1999 through 9/27/2011.

That setup would leave you with a 9/27/2011 balance of just under $149,600. The match matters hugely: If there were no match and you had contributed only your own money, the annualized average internal rate of return on your $250 biweekly contributions would have been a modest (but nevertheless very positive) 3.85%, leaving you with a balance just under $100,000. But if you counted the extra 50% match of $125 every two weeks as part of your return, the internal rate of return would have been 10.20%(!).

I couldn’t agree more with the quote at the end of the article: “Tomorrow always comes—sometimes worse than today, usually better.” Also with the final lesson: And always (ALWAYS) get the match.

Note: All investments are subject to risk. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index. Investments in bond funds are subject to interest rate, credit, and inflation risk.

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