Investing is temporarily being written by guest columnists.
With daily stock market averages fluctuating crazily, and the big Internet stocks still out of rational range even in their slump, where does the cautious investor go these days for a decent investment?
First a few definitions, starting with "cautious investor." Buying and selling and quick turnarounds are so fashionable in the real and virtual markets these days, investors have forgotten that the driver who carefully follows the rules of the road is more likely to arrive in one piece. Cautious investors want their money to grow the old-fashioned way--steadily, even if slowly. Preferably, the return comes not only from selling stocks that have appreciated in price but also from--surprise--a regular dividend.
That's d-i-v-i-d-e-n-d. Some of you may have forgotten that word, too, along with its parent word, "profit," from which dividends spring.
The cautious investor looks at a variety of factors before making a decision, including, just to refresh the memory, earnings history, growth in dividends, price/earnings ratios, and the balance sheet, with particular attention to debt. Then there is the company itself, what it does, and its leadership.
When I first started investing, almost 50 years ago, I was in college and my mentor was my father, a businessman who had been through the Depression. When it came to money, he prohibited any impulsive actions. His view was that buying stocks was no different from buying a car or refrigerator or even a house, items he wanted to last for a long time.
Therefore, one basic rule is that the cautious investor wants to be comfortable for years with any stock purchased. No need to peek at the market two or three times a day to see how things are going.
My first purchases, which I alone selected, came in 1954, my senior year in college. My father had given me a softbound book put out by Standard & Poor's that listed endless data on every stock on the New York Stock Exchange and the over-the-counter (OTC) market, the predecessor of the Nasdaq Stock Market. I read it almost cover to cover.
My first choice, with $1,000 I had saved, drew my father's wrath. It was stock in the New Yorker Magazine Co., whose shares, at about $30 apiece, were traded on the OTC. I was writing short stories in those days, and he accused me of buying the stock to have an "in" to sell the fiction to the magazine.
In fact, New Yorker stock, which I continued to buy in small chunks for another five years, was one of the best investments I ever made. The company regularly paid a substantial dividend. It was so conservatively managed that it held in reserve all its advance subscription payments--in cash--until the magazine was delivered.
I learned from the New Yorker investment about "float," the number of shares outstanding and how that can affect price. There were, in fact, only several hundred thousand shares in the company, and more than half were held by the Fleischman family, which started the magazine. (The New Yorker now belongs to the Newhouse family of magazines.) Another sizable chunk of New Yorker stock was in the hands of the magazine's editors and writers, people who would never sell it. The float was so small that one time when I bought 200 shares, I drove the price up almost $5 between the first 100 and the second. Another rule for the cautious investor is to look at the stock outstanding and how the company handles new shares and options, which affect the stockholder's interest.
Another early experience came from my initial investment of $500 in what for the late 1950s was a risky high-tech stock--Polaroid Corp., then a new instant-camera company. As the stock rose steadily I made some additional purchases, and the stake grew with stock dividends and splits. On paper at one point my Polaroid holdings were 10 times my investment. I had a five-figure nest egg. But when Polaroid started to tumble, I froze at selling because my nest egg would be sharply reduced by capital gains taxes.
Of course, Polaroid eventually came down so far that the paper loss far exceeded anything I would have paid in taxes. In the end, I rode Polaroid all the way up and almost all the way down.
Another rule for the cautious investor that I learned was that when growth stocks--even those you believe in--reach an outrageous price, sell part if not all. Investors like me often leave behind only the shares equivalent to their initial investment.
Pay your taxes on sold shares, take your gain, and put it in something else, even a government bond.
Another early lesson was that not even blue-chip companies stay blue-chip, or even keep going, forever. When my first son was very young, I wanted to guarantee money for his college tuition. I set aside $10,000 when he was 2 years old, invested in shares of U.S. Rubber Co. (The amount, in those days, would have covered four years at a private university.) My thought was that this well-known com-pany's stock would grow along with inflation and its dividends would increase the pot. It didn't, and by the time he went to college the stock covered only his first year.
The lesson there for the cautious investor is don't plan for the future--more than five years down the road--by counting on any particular stock.
To summarize: Investing for the cautious investor is not reckless or considered gambling. The cautious investor doesn't day-trade, or check the portfolio hour by hour, day by day or even week by week, worrying about ups and downs.
And the cautious investor's market is not a casino where winners get immediate big returns, doubling or tripling their investment in a year or two, notwithstanding the returns of a few, a very few, famous stocks over the past five years.
On the other hand, with the markets acting as they have the past five years, sometimes even a cautious investor can get lucky. For example, the cautious investor who bought 100 shares of a stock as stable as General Electric Co. five years ago, in late July 1994, would have paid $50 a share, for a total cost of $5,000. At the same time, the cautious investor expected $144 a year in dividends, at the rate being paid when the purchase was made. At that time, GE was near its historic high.
In the ensuing five years, GE not only split its stock two-for-one, giving our cautious investor a total of 200 shares, but also raised its dividend rate.
The result: As of the market's close Friday, our cautious investor's 200 shares, now valued at $107 per share, are worth $21,400. In addition, the cautious investor would have gotten $1,042 in cash dividends. Overall, that is a 4 percent annual cash return on the original investment. Should the stock be sold, it would bring $21,400--or roughly 2 1/2 times the original $5,000 investment after subtracting capital gains taxes.
Admittedly, even a cautious investor would recognize this as an unusually large return for a blue-chip stock. Cautious investors recognize that today's markets and the surging U.S. economy are in uncharted waters. Cautious investors believe the Internet has created an investment bubble that even now is beginning to show leakage. Should it burst, it could take down both sound and inflated stocks--with prices have absolutely nothing to do with earnings.
In the interim, however, the GE experience shows that one place for a cautious investor to look for solid stocks to purchase these days may be at popular old-line companies, even those that are currently at or near their historic highs.
Notice that widely held companies such as American Express Co. and Bell Atlantic Corp. are up well over 10 percent this year, growth that a cautious investor would consider more than satisfactory.
On July 27, with the markets pushing at new highs, I decided to look for investment prospects on the list of 41 stocks on the New York Stock Exchange that hit their individual highs that day. Among them were some solid companies that have not been stars over the past few years: American Express Co., Eaton Corp., General Mills Inc., Sysco Corp., Wendy's International Inc. and Winnebago Industries Inc. They all pay dividends, and their price/earnings ratios are not stratospheric.
The cautious investor should study what their growth has been during the past few years to indicate what possible gains remain. What is the dividend policy? Look at their earnings prospects, not just in a growing economy but also in a period of economic slowdown. In the two trading weeks since July 27, the 41 stocks have all dropped somewhat, as has the market as a whole. But the cautious investor, after all, is in it for the long haul.
As for the Internet, it may not make for good, cautious investments, but it is extremely helpful to the cautious investor in researching stocks. There are dozens of free Web sites that give rundowns on companies. The cautious investor checks financials, brokerage research, the industry, historic patterns, insider trading and one favorite of mine, leadership. GE's stock record owes much to its leader, Jack Welch, and when he leaves the stock will go down no matter what the company's outlook at the time.
Finally, the cautious investor has to trust his instincts.
Preparing this column, I decided to test out the cautious-investor system, to look for a reasonable investment in this overheated, overpriced market. I checked spots where I normally get some leads--starting with the daily lists of companies that have increased their dividends or voted stock splits. One company that announced a stock split caught my eye. Analyst research available on the Internet described an industrial product company that through acquisitions since 1996 has moved from being primarily a defense contractor to the maker of a variety of heavy-duty equipment for civilian use.
On the Nasdaq list, it recently hit its historic high but still has a price/earnings ratio of less than 20. This company pays a small dividend and is in a slow but steady growth pattern. Several years ago it got new management, which started a series of acquisitions of firms that, like this company, are leaders in their product fields.
As a true cautious investor, I checked its balance sheet and charts. I also looked at a Web site that shows insider trading. A company whose management or board members have been steadily selling out their positions is bad from the cautious investors point of view, and for me raises questions about investing in the firm. On the other hand, a company whose insiders are steadily buying is a sign of their faith in the firm's future. This company's insiders were both buying and selling, but not much of either over the past year. I called my broker for another check.
I'm not mentioning the stock's name, because I bought some. But with a smile, I can report that it went up 1.7 percent the day after my purchase. Of course, it couldn't keep going up. Two days later it dropped 2 percent. Now, more than a week later, it is still $1 a share below my purchase price. Ask me about it in five years.
Barring some catastrophic news, I expect I'll still have it in my portfolio--along with GE.