Pay attention to history, and you learn that events move in long, irregular cycles. We have the business cycle, which alternates between periods of expansion and contraction. Recessions happen, as do recoveries.
Then there is the market cycle, where booms and busts occur regularly. Every bull market is followed by a bear; every bear market is followed by a bull. This can be difficult to remember when you are in throes of either one. It seemed in 1999 that almost no one could imagine that the manic price rises of the market would ever end.
And in late 2008 and early 2009, it looked like the vicious market collapse would never end. But it did – and it always does.
“This too shall pass” is a proverb that humbled King Solomon. Understand what it means when you mistakenly believe something will never change.
10. Be intellectually curious. There is a tendency amongst investors to settle into a comfort zone. You develop a particular style, find an investing method you like – and then think it will last forever. This is a recipe for slothful calcification.
Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher whose doctrine of flux stated “The only constant is change.” This is especially true in investing. The many different inputs that drive market returns constantly change. At various times, it can be profits, the Fed, the economy, interest rates, technology, tax policy, etc. It is important that you constantly upgrade your skill set, while learning to be both adaptive and flexible.
The best investors all have a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity. If everything else is changing, but you are not, then you are being left behind.
11. Reduce investing friction. Friction refers to all of the little costs that, when compounded over time, can add up to big dollars. In investing, friction refers to anything that is a drag on total returns outside of market performance. Think about the long-term effects of the fees, costs, expenses and taxes on your net, above and beyond how your investments did.
Since 1974, the markets have returned about 10 percent a year. The average 401(k) retirement account earned about 3 percent annually over that period. There are numerous reasons these portfolios radically underperformed the markets, but one of the primary reasons is the layers of excess fees and fund loads.
Investors with lower costs tend to have better growth and retain more of their assets over the long haul. Keep your fees, costs expenses and taxes low. It is a guaranteed way to improve your returns.
12. There is no free lunch. This is the most fundamental rule in all of economics. It gets forgotten by too many investors. The temptation is to get something for nothing.
You never get something for nothing. Consider:
That hot stock tip? You want the upside without doing all of the tax research.
High-yield junk bonds? Some people believe that an 8 percent yield when the 10-year Treasury is paying 1.62 percent does not come with an increased risk of default. They are mistaken.
Sitting in way too much cash? It creates a false illusion of safety that will not keep up with inflation.
No one on television is going to make you wealthy. There is no magic formula or silver bullet or secret hedge fund.
The best investors generate long-term returns by making rational, unemotional decisions. They do their homework, spend time and effort learning the basics. They are unemotional, intelligent and patient. You can be as well.
Ritholtz is chief executive of FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture. You can follow him on Twitter: @Ritholtz. For previous Ritholtz columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.