Saturday, July 11, 2009

Investors: Don't Be Average

Investors: Don't Be Average

I am often asked, "What advice do you have for the average investor?" My reply is, "Don't be average."

Most of us know of the 80/20 rule. That rule is a good rule for averages. And in the world of money, the rule is 90/10. This means 90 percent of the people make 10 percent of the money and 10 percent of the people make 90 percent of the money.

This 90/10 rule holds true in almost anything financial. Take the game of golf, for example. Ten percent of the professional golfers make 90 percent of the money.

Taking the ratio to the next level, the top 10 percent of professional golfers make 90 percent of the money. Just look at Tiger Woods. When you compare his winnings plus endorsements, he is in a league unto himself.

Last year, my wife Kim was invited to play in a pro-am as part of a professional Tour event in New York. (No, they did not invite me...) Kim is pretty good and was the only woman in a field of around 300 golfers. I was a proud husband as she confidently walked alone to the women's tee. Without hesitation, she placed her ball on the tee, took a clean back swing, and swung her club.

She out-drove two of the men in her five-some. Bruce Vaughn, the professional golfer in the group, rushed up to congratulate her. The men amateurs were also complimentary. I could tell they were relived to have a much better than average "woman golfer" in their group. Kim hits her drives longer than most men, myself included.

Tough Way to Earn a Living

The tournament was the first time I got to see the real life of a professional golfer. It is a tough life. It is not the glamour I thought it was. If a professional did not make the cut, they simply moved on to the next tournament in some faraway city...and teed up again. They do not stay for the tournament. They pay for their own transportation, lodging, food, and fees. They are on the road, away from their families for months at a time. Even those who make the cut and play on the weekend have no guarantee of enough earnings to offset expenses. It's a tough way to earn a living.

Like professional golfers, who live and die by the ‘money list,' money is how I keep score. It's my score card, my report card as an investor. It's how I tell how well -- or how poorly -- I'm doing. My rich dad said, ‘Making money is my game.' It's my game, too. And that's why I have so much respect for professional golfers... their livelihood depends upon how well they play the game -- as professionals.

In the world of golf there are average and professional golfers. The same is true with investors. The problem with being an average golfer or investor is that average people rarely make any money. Many average investors are in financial trouble today because they are simply that: average. They never turned pro.

When the financial crisis began in 2007, the professional investors were already out (or getting out) of the market. The average investors did as they were told, which is to invest for the long-term, hanging on tight as the Dow plunged from 14,000 to below 7,000, a 50 percent loss in value. Many real estate flippers and homeowners enjoyed the same wild ride.

Tragedy of the Average Investor

The tragedy is that many amateur investors are still clinging to their losses. They hope the market will bounce back. Amateurs are still following the advice of "invest for the long term in a well-diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds." Or they continue to believe "your home is your biggest investment." That is subprime advice for subprime investors.

It seems to me that more people keep track of their golf scores than keep track of their money... their ‘financial' scores. That's why they're amateurs... in the money game.

Even after the crash, the same subprime financial advice continues to be dished out in magazines, newspapers, and on television. Subprime advice continues to flow from real estate and stock market professionals who are not professional investors. They are professional sales people. They live on commissions -- not ROI, the returns on their investments. If they do not sell, they do not eat.

If you're going to turn pro, you will need to upgrade your financial advice. Why continue to invest for the long term while the market is crashing? Why continue to diversify when diversification did not protect investors from the crash?

In 1974, as I was leaving the Marine Corps, I decided I wanted to become an entrepreneur and investor. In other words, I did not want a job with a 401(k). That meant I had to become street smart, rather than school smart. It meant I needed a different set of life skills and better financial mentors if I were to survive on the street.
Just like the life of the pro golfers, there were long stretches of losses, no wins, no money or security.

In early 1985, things got so bad that Kim and I were temporarily homeless. I still remember leaving her in San Diego with only $2 for the week, while I traveled to Australia to put a deal together. Somehow we survived the year. In December of 1985 we finally made $1,500 after a year's worth of losses. That year was a great qualifying school. Today, even in this tough economy, our investments continue to grow. This crisis is a good time for professionals and a bad time for amateurs.

Not Good Enough

Years ago, I asked my rich dad, "What is the difference between a professional and an amateur?" His reply was, "Professionals know their best is not good enough. They always want to do better." He paused before continuing and said, "When someone says, ‘I'll do my best' or ‘I'll give it my best shot' or ‘I'll try,' they've already lost. Those are not words of a winner."

In the world of ‘the best,' your best is never good enough. If you're going to be a winner in life, you have to constantly go beyond your best. Most people are happy being average. Most are happy being faceless in a sea of faces. That's why 10 percent always win 90 percent of the rewards. I get up every day, grateful for what I have accomplished, yet looking forward to doing better. I want do better than my (previous) best everyday. It's not about the money anymore. I have enough money. I just love the game of making money.

Today I give most of my money away...but I will not give up the game of money. I play the game because the game is always better than me...and my best will never be good enough. I continue to work hard to become better at a game I love.

I once read a book on golf that said, "People say amateurs play for the love of the game and professionals play for money. That is not true. Amateurs are amateurs because they do not love the game enough. When it is cold and rainy, a professional golfer will play. The amateur will not. When they are sick, the professional will play. The amateur stays in bed. When they are losing, the professional will practice harder and enter more tournaments. The amateur will quit and take up tennis."

It matters little if the game is golf, tennis, or money. Ten percent of the people will always make 90 percent of the money. When the markets began crashing in 2007, the money did not disappear. Ninety percent of the money went to 10 percent of the investors.

A financial crisis is a great time for professional investors and a horrible time for average ones. If you're going to invest, don't be average. It's time to turn pro... or take up tennis.

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