Right after I moved to California, I bought a sliver of the Vanguard Growth Index Fund for $33.66 a share and invested it for “the long haul” in a 401(k) rollover account. If stocks had returned their alleged 7 percent a year, shares of the fund should be trading for about $60 a share (compounded). Today, nine years and a couple weeks later, VIGRX closed at $23.20, well under half of what it “should” have earned and, most painfully for yours truly, 31 percent below what I paid for it.
I reshuffled after the tech stock crash and had a little bit of luck: after the worst week in Wall Street history, my fund balance in that 401(k) rollover is only down 19 percent — after nine years. In 2004 I launched a cautious, sensible plan to dollar-cost average that account back to health. The credit bubble that energized the most recent bull move got me back to even last fall; even after moving a third of my stake to cash last fall, I lost all the gains of four patient, sensible, diversified years in six weeks. I tried buying back into my stock funds when there was blood on the streets; in seven days the market dived another 20 percent (making half of it back on Monday, fortunately).
Of course it’s unfair to gripe about stocks’ returns after a panic sell-off of epic proportions. Everybody’s portfolio stinks at times like these; it’ll sweeten when the fear turns to greed, as it inevitably does.
What gripes me is that I never did anything greedy; I never bought individual stocks on margin, I never dived into options or futures or currencies, I stayed with sensible mutual funds from a sensible fund family. Buying and holding a single fund, as illustrated above, would have cost me a third of my stake; reshuffling cut my losses to a fifth.
I guess I should be grateful: I’ve lived through two market crashes in eight years and I’m still sitting on 80 cents on the dollar. Many have been wiped out.
Melissa and I call experiences like this “tuition”: the cost of learning how the world works. Over the years I’ve gotten richer in experience, but I’d like to be getting richer in the ol’ rollover account.
One thing I have figured out for absolute certain: The only way to make your account balance rise is to put more into it than you take out. Everything else is casino winnings.