Millions of Americans are making this mistake. And likely so are millions of others in the advanced welfare states of the West. And yet it is one of the big reasons why many people will never accumulate substantial assets, never achieve financial independence and possibly must ride the wretched rush hour E-train for more years than necessary.

What Is It?

They never commit to a consistent investing program that includes the asset class that tends to achieve the best returns—they never buy stocks. Why are stocks—or what those in the securities industry tend to call equities—important?

To obtain a higher standard of living, the prudent investor must make one’s money grow faster than costs. The latter are inflation plus taxes one pays on one’s investments (capital gains taxes, etc).

Stocks—if one goes by their long-term performance going back to the 1920s—tend to return about 10 percent a year. (By the way, I am citing large cap stocks. Small cap stocks, riskier than large caps, have an average rate of return of about 12 percent in that same period). Remember that doesn’t mean you get ten percent every year. It means the average is about 10 percent a year over the long term. This is a justification for making a long term commitment.

Stocks for the Long Run

That means buying stocks month in and month out through good and bad markets. And, once again, the recommendation of for most people is to use the lowest-cost index funds.

This is something that I and the ever comely Suzanne Hall have used since we started investing in the early 1990s. Slowly, without trying to pick market lows or highs, we invested in stocks along with some bonds and cash over 25 years.

Today we are slowly taking money out of our accounts. Again, we try to enjoy the benefits of stocks without trying to figure out if we’re in the middle of a boom or a crash. We let time work for us since we likely still have another twenty years or so before we plead our cases at the Pearly Gates.

“No Stinking Stocks, but Give Me Bonds”

By contrast, bonds in the same holding period going back to the 1920s have generally returned about three percent to five percent, depending on the kind of bond. And since inflation has averaged about three percent a year, you can see that stocks over the long run tend to yield a rate of return that beats costs while bonds barely keep up with costs. In the former the buying power of your money grows. In the latter, it barely holds its own and in some cases you lose buying power.

What are the numbers on stocks? Ten percent minus three percent for inflation plus say another one percent or more for investment taxes left the average investor of the last generation ahead about six percent a year (10, minus three, minus one nets six).

The 100 percent bond investor just about broke even. He or she didn’t gain much. And the name of the game in long investing is to earn the most one can without taking excessive risks.

But there is another risk and millions of investors take it every day: They have never grasped the importance of stocks. So their money will likely never grow fast enough to ensure that they can achieve financial independence.

This danger recently came to my attention. I saw a poll that found that many young Americans won’t touch stocks. Possibly it is because they’re scared or possibly because they don’t understand their importance.

The Danger to the Young

Two out of three millennials aren’t interested in stocks, the asset class that tends to generate the best long-term results. And many of their elders also aren’t taking stock.

Those are some of the findings of a new survey.

“Americans, particularly younger adults, are missing out on an opportunity to build wealth and save substantial money for retirement,” according to the survey.

Indeed, found just 33 percent of millennials and only 40 percent of the general population buy stocks. Fifty-four percent of the respondents say they’re not investing at all.

“The main reasons why people seem not to be investing are money and education,” says Jill Cornfield, a Bankrate retirement analyst. Many young people “don’t seem to understand the importance of stocks,” she says. Others do, she added, but lack cash.

They should educate themselves in how to make money work for them.

In life, whether it is money or anything else, we should study the ways of people who do something better than we do so we can learn from their success. We should ignore race, sex, religion, ethnicity. They’re superfluous. (Scott Joplin and Ludwig van Beethoven were great not because one was dark skinned or because one had German blood. They were great because of their talents).

Focus on the person’s character and skills. Sometimes these people were simply lucky. But other times these people developed skills that we should try to understand. Then we should see if these skills have applications to our lives.

Who are these people who shun stocks and who are those embracing them?

Education and income are two key indicators. The well-educated and those making good money usually aren’t afraid of stocks. They use them effectively.

Most survey respondents, 73 percent, with an income of $75K or more invest in stocks. But only nine percent of those earning $30K a year buy stocks.

Those who have a college education are more likely to invest than people with a high school education or less, 61% vs. 29%, the survey said.

Avoid What Can Help You

Still, millennials and others who shun stocks are hurting themselves, advisors warn (See Notes: The Four Percent Compounding Effect). That’s because over decades stocks tend to outperform other kinds of investments, they say.

For example, in the 85-year period between 1926 and 2010 large cap stocks earned on average 9.9% a year. Government bonds in the same period, returned 5.5 percent a year, according to figures by brokerage Raymond James. So large cap stocks beat government bonds by some 45 percent.

In the same period, small cap stocks were getting about 12 percent a year.

So why invest at all in bonds?

Over short periods bonds can outperform stocks. Then having some bonds in a portfolio with mostly stocks diversifies a portfolio, helping it through sour stock markets.

Either way not buying stocks and only obtaining low returns over decades make a big difference in whether a person or a family reaches financial goals.

Many young people are missing the chance to accumulate significant assets as are many of their elders who are stuck on the E-train.



The Four Percent Compounding Effect

Four percent more on an investment doesn’t seem like much over a short period. And, in the beginning, it isn’t. But over a long period, as money compounds, it is huge.

Say you put $200 a month into a bond fund and earn four percent. But your friend invests the same amount and picks a stock fund that earns eight percent a year. Obviously your friend does better than you, but by how much?

Over ten years, it isn’t much, only about seven thousand dollars more for your friend (36,833 versus your $29,548). But over 30 years the gap widens—your $139,273 versus his $300,059. And ten years beyond that, your decision to avoid stocks for the long run could be disastrous.

At the end of 40 years, his $200 a month in stocks turns into $702,856 while your bond investment returning four percent a year is only $237,180. That’s some $465,000 less than your friend.




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Gregory Bresiger
Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent financial journalist from Queens, New York. His articles have appeared in publications such as Financial Planner Magazine and The New York Post.