If you think you’ve had reason to feel uneasy about the investment environment lately, you’re not imagining things. In just the past few months, we’ve seen economic uncertainty, intense political polarization, and super-low bond yields. Yet at the same time, the stock market kept pushing higher.
In this confusing and sometimes contradictory climate, you may be asking yourself a question that I hear often: How do I make sense of all this, keep investing, and still get a good night’s sleep?
As with any problem, there are multiple ways to go at it. But there’s one approach in particular that is simple, straightforward, and nearly foolproof: Save more money. Not only can saving more give you a greater sense of control over your investment plan, it can help compensate for long-term returns that, in our estimation, could fall short of historical averages.
I love the way one of our investment pros put it. Fran Kinniry told The Wall Street Journal this summer, “Investing is always a partnership between you and the markets.” He explained that the markets carried more than their fair share of the weight for a couple of decades, through the 1990s, providing outsized returns that made the investor’s half of the partnership relatively light work. “But now you are going to have to be the majority partner.”
Sobering? Sure. Hopeless? Definitely not.
Over the 12 months since September 2015, U.S. stocks returned 15%, though the rise has not been a one-way ticket straight up. International markets have also posted strong returns, but lower than those of the broad U.S. market. The decision by U.K. voters in June to exit the European Union came as a surprise but caused market heartburn for only a few days.
In fixed income, yields remained extremely low—about 1.60% on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note at the end of September 2016, after dipping below 1.40% over the summer. And bond yields in some international markets were negative.
Even this relatively small window of time illustrates a truism of the financial markets: There will always be segments that perform well and others that don’t. Saving more saves you from trying to control the uncontrollable—how economies and the markets perform. And it keeps you in control of one of the most vital parts of your investment program.
But whatever our circumstances, figuring out how to save more is worth the effort. It requires that we make difficult decisions to forgo some consumption today to increase the likelihood of consuming (or consuming more) in the future. This is the very heart of investing. Sacrifices are never fun, so consider carrying them out systematically and in doses that you can be comfortable with—for instance, gradually getting up to the max in your IRA, or adding a percentage point or so to the amount you stash in your employer’s retirement plan. As a point of reference, we generally suggest that investors strive for a retirement savings rate of 12%–15%, including any employer contributions.
Note: Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.
If you need more convincing about the wisdom of the “save more” course of action, it might be helpful to examine your alternatives. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it hits on a few of the big ones, and none are without risk.
- Reach for yield. With yields so low on many types of bonds, it’s tempting to find the corners of the fixed income market where payouts are juicier. But with the juice comes considerable risk. You need to be aware that you’d be taking on more risk—and how much more.
- Go all in on a hot-performing asset class or fund. By now, you know better than that, right?
- Sit tight. This approach isn’t a terrible idea; it’s better than panicking and deciding to just “do something,” particularly if that means changing your approach in response to the market’s movements.
Here’s the inescapably challenging part of your partnership with the markets: In the short run, your “partner” is fickle, emotional, and wildly unpredictable. But in the long run, your partner is mostly rational and extremely helpful.
The best way to minimize your vulnerability to the market’s mood swings, and to maximize the benefit of your partner’s longer-term strengths, is to expect less and save more. Maybe the markets will deliver better-than-expected returns. Maybe they’ll be consistent with our more modest expectations. In either case, a higher savings rate can help put you in a better position to reach your goals.
- All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.