The “best” place to put your money NOW for 2012

Posted by on December 30, 2011 @ 12:19 pm in Investing

I have to admit up front that if you’re reading this blog based on the title, you’re in for a bit of a surprise, and I hope you won’t feel too bad about being hoodwinked.

Articles with titles like this are almost obligatory in the financial press this time of year. If you’re reading this, you know why: They get people to read. Everyone wants an inside track on what’s going to be “hot” next year.

Understandable enough. Of course the real question is whether you’re truly gaining anything in these articles. Sure you’re getting 30 minutes or so of a relaxing/interesting read and an excuse (“I’m working on the finances!”) for carving some quiet time out for yourself over the holidays. But getting any investment insight is a different matter. Hopefully, this article will be different.

When it comes to year-end predictions, as with subjects from sports to fashion, some investment fortune-tellers will get it right, and some will get it wrong. It’s illustrative to revisit last year to make this point. For example, one leading personal finance magazine counseled the following in its issue on investing for 2011: “Tap into Emerging Markets for Big Profits.” As you may know, emerging markets have had a pretty bad year in 2011, down 20.6% as of Thursday, December 29 (based on the MSCI Emerging Markets USD Index, as reported by Morningstar).

Some will get it even more wrong. Last year, one popular business magazine’s 2011 investing feature included a six-page profile of a particular fund’s founder. Unfortunately for anyone who interpreted this spotlight treatment as a reason to invest in the fund, the fund was featured in another story in October 2011 in a different publication, highlighting some major performance hiccups and the departure of a co-manager. Ultimately, the fund’s 2011 performance up to this point has been very poor (as of December 29, it was down 32.2% in 2011, according to Morningstar). This magazine also featured three funds (one large growth, one small blend, and one world stock) in its “Funds to Watch” in 2011 section that, as of December 29, were down 4.05%, 1.05%, and up 1.6%, year to date, (according to Morningstar) respectively—making you hope readers just “watched” and didn’t invest.

Of course, it’s easy to be a critic, especially in hindsight. And I’m sure the commentators here will find someone that predicted a big winner in 2011. To be fair, one of the magazines I’m picking on here also featured gold coins and bullion on its cover and throughout its pages. While a bit of the bloom has recently come off that flower, gold up to this point has been a winner again in 2011. (I’ve written about gold before, and while there’s been a lot of up and down in the interim, my views remain the same.)

Which brings us to what might happen in 2012. There is some early indication that “income-generating” equities may be something you’re going to hear a lot about. By all means, read, learn, and be entertained. But when it comes to investing your money, be careful. As my colleague Joe Davis has counseled, stocks aren’t bonds, and there is no return (income or capital gain) without risk.

My view is that the best place to invest in 2012 has nothing to do with the calendar, is the same place as it was in 2011, and where it will be in 2013, 2015, 2025, and 2100: a low-cost, broadly diversified portfolio of investments, with an asset allocation and expected risk profile that match your risk tolerance over your investment horizon. (I still haven’t figured out what a catchy cover photo for this might look like … suggestions?)

I’d add at least two other things to keep in mind as you peruse the year-end financial press. First, whether it’s right or wrong, anything you are reading on a website, blog, magazine, or newspaper, or seeing on television, is also being seen by many others. Be aware that tools are available now that leverage search engines like Google, enabling quantitative investment managers/”hedge funds” to measure how often a fund or stock is mentioned in the press or on the web and to potentially take a position before you can put down the eggnog and get around to getting in on a “hot tip.” So be warned.

Second, it really doesn’t matter who was right or wrong in 2010 about 2011. My five-year-old might pick a winning fund or category for 2012. The issue is whether there is any consistency in value added over many years, after adjusting for costs and additional risk. In reviewing last year’s “where to invest” articles, I didn’t see any serious discussion of track records. Without that info, the only benefit I get out of these magazines is to help me think about what questions I’m likely to get from clients and what real analysis I need to do in the upcoming year.

In fact, perhaps the most exciting thing about the turn of the year from the point of view of a Vanguard financial analyst such as myself is that another year of performance data piles up—giving me even more evidence to use in tests of how hard it is to consistently beat the market.

Happy New Year 2012!

Notes: All investing is subject to risk. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market.

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