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Access to investment options and information in today’s technological world has made investing easier — and arguably, more confusing — for first-time investors.
“There is no lack of information available for all of us in today’s world,” said Stacey Hines, private client services market leader and senior vice president at Dubuque Bank & Trust. “The internet has made everything available to us with the click of a mouse.”
That readily available information can help first-time investors.
“You can easily open an investment account, research a specific stock or mutual fund and execute a trade right from your smartphone,” Hines said.
The wealth of information also can create confusion, particularly for people new to investing.
To reduce confusion, here are four concepts to consider when preparing to embark on your first investing experience.
HAVE A GOAL, THINK LONG TERM
Experts say investors should have a goal in mind before spending money.
“If someone is investing in the market, they should understand their reason for doing so,” said Tim Breitfelder, financial adviser and investment director for StackStone Wealth in Dubuque.
Investing can build wealth over the long term, but one of the pitfalls for first-time investors is impatience — not providing ample time for invested money to grow.
“It’s the story of the tortoise and the hare,” said Lori Schock, director of the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal regulatory agency that enforces laws concerning how investments are offered and sold.
The tortoise in Aesop’s fable kept a slow and steady pace to find success. Schock said investors also should take a long-term view to grow wealth.
“(The return on investment) is not for tomorrow or even for next year,” she said. “If you are planning for retirement or for a child’s education, (the accumulated wealth) can be for decades down the road.”
Breitfelder recommends that invested funds remain separate from money used for a person’s immediate needs.
“If you can’t set aside the money for some period of years, you should not go into the stock market,” he said. “Investing is a long-term endeavor.”
Unbiased investment education information is available online. Schock recommends investors visit Investor.gov, a free website her agency launched in 2009 to provide consumer information on investing. The website includes sections with plain-language explanations of various investing terms and concepts.
Schock said first-time investors should check two things before committing their money — that the person selling the investment is licensed and that the investment itself is registered. Investor.gov provides free information, including how long licensed investment brokers have been in the business and their regulatory history.
“The biggest red flag is if the person is not in the database at all,” Schock said.
Another SEC website, sec.gov/edgar, enables potential investors to check if their intended investment is registered. The information on registered investments includes filings by companies, audited financial statements and reports on mutual funds.
“Generally speaking, people should only invest in registered investments,” Schock said. “Fraudsters are almost always pushing unregistered investments.”
Schock said investors can report concerns about the validity of a specific investment through the Investor.gov website.
“Last year, more than 30,000 investor complaints and concerns came through our office,” she said. “We ask that people (express a concern) before they turn over their money (to the person selling the investment).”
TELL A STOCK FROM A MUNICIPAL BOND
Two common types of investments are stocks and municipal bonds.
“When you purchase stock, you’re buying shares of an individual company,” Hines said. “The value of your investment rises or falls based on the company’s financial performance and underlying economic factors.”
Stocks have the potential to create positive returns but also carry great risk, Hines said.
Although the bond market isn’t performing well currently, it usually offers investors lower risks.
Municipal bonds are debt securities issued by government entities — such as states, cities or counties — to fund day-to-day operations and pay for capital projects.
“Purchasing a municipal bond is in essence making a loan to the given municipality,” Hines said. “In exchange for your capital, they agree to pay you a set amount of interest for a given amount of time.”
UNDERSTAND HOW DIVERSIFICATION REDUCES RISK
Spreading money among different investments is a recommended practice known as diversification.
“Typically, we would encourage people to diversify — don’t put all of your money in one company or in one stock,” Breitfelder said.
Some stocks will do well when others do not, Breitfelder said, so diversifying your investments can safeguard against those market fluctuations.
“Market fluctuations can scare people away from the market permanently — and that’s what we don’t want,” he said. “You want to stay in the game because that is how you grow wealth over time. You’re looking to the future — you’re not investing for a get-rich-quick scheme.”
Hines said she recommends first-time investors avoid investing in individual stocks, and instead diversify their investments through exchange-traded funds — a type of pool investment security holding multiple assets — and mutual funds — a company that pools money from many investors and invests the money in various securities, including stocks and bonds.
“Utilizing exchange-traded funds or mutual funds is a great way to gain experience and exposure to the equity and bonds markets without the elevated risk associated with owning individual (stocks),” Hines said.