A Student's Guide to Investing
How to make smarter financial decisions early in life
I have always looked for ways to make an extra buck. In primary school that meant mowing lawns and recycling cans. In middle school, I tried testing apps, freelance graphic design and creating YouTube channels. All without any apparent success.
Towards the end of high school I read Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and a light bulb went off in my head. In short, the book advocated for passive income, meaning investing intelligently in assets that earn you money while you sleep.
I immediately opened a brokerage account and started buying stocks. As you can imagine, investing without a strategy, adequate knowledge or emotional discipline is not a good idea.
I ended up losing everything I put in (luckily only €50) due to not educating myself on my broker's fee system and as a result paying extraordinarily high fees. At that point, I remember thinking to myself what an absolute loser I was.
If I would have given up there, I would really have been a loser. But I didn't. Instead I analyzed my mistakes, educated myself for two year and then developed a solid strategy that has been working for me for over a year.
Looking around me now, I see that most students (and sadly adults too) are as clueless when it comes to investing as I was back then.
If that is the case for you, I assure you that I’m only a few steps ahead. I’m nowhere close to being an expert on investing and that’s why I think this guide may prove useful. I have found that I learn better from those who are just a few steps ahead of me than experts because the tips of the former are generally more applicable.
I cannot tell you what to do, only what has worked for me.
This student’s guide to investing is essentially the resource I wish I had when I started. It’s intended to help those who want to start building a solid financial future despite having little starting capital and not knowing anything about the world of investing.
Because many topics will be covered, a lot will be simplified. Hence, I invite you to conduct further research on your own to solidify your understanding.
Stock (Equity) Market Fundamentals
A stock, also known as share, is a portion of a company. If Google had 1000 shares and you bought one, you would own 1/1000th of Google.
Companies issue stocks to raise money in order to finance different projects. It’s an alternative to taking a loan.
They list their stocks on one or more of the exchanges (e.g. Nasdaq, LSE, TYO etc.) that together make up the stock market. That is where the public, you and I, can buy and sell these stocks.
The stock market bases the value of companies on their expected future earnings. Hence, it’s forward-looking which explains why unprofitable companies like Uber can have high valuations: investors think they will do much better in the future than they do right now.
Stock prices fluctuate due to changes in stock market supply and demand. The stock market is full of people with different opinions. If there are more buyers then sellers of a stock then the price will go up and conversely.
Every transaction needs a buyer and a seller. The stock exchanges use computers to take care of the matching. But remember that at the core the stock market is simply a place where you trade portions of companies with other people.
Bond (Debt) Market Fundamentals
A bond is a loan that a lender (investor) makes to a borrower (bond issuer). Governments, corporations and municipalities issue bonds when they need to raise capital.
An investor who buys a government bond is lending the government money. An investor who buys a corporate bond is lending that corporation money.
Many companies prefer bond financing over equity financing because it’s often less expensive and does not entail giving up any control of the company.
Like a loan, a bond pays interest periodically and repays the principal at a stated time, known as the maturity.
Bonds can be bought and sold in the “secondary market” after they are issued. While some bonds are traded publicly through exchanges (like stocks), most are traded privately between large broker-dealers.
I won’t go more into depth into bonds here as I don’t believe it’s very relevant for students. If you want to understand bonds more in depth, read this.
Now that you know what stocks and bonds are, let’s take a look at the bigger picture: the economy.
Before you start investing, it’s good to understand the economic cycle. This is the long-term pattern of alternating periods of economic growth and decline.
Growth periods are expansions (a.k.a. booms) of the economy. Periods of decline are contractions (a.k.a. recessions) of the economy.
The highest point of a boom is called a peak; the lowest point of a recession is called a trough. The expansions and contractions are measured by changes in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which refers to the total value of goods and services produced in a country.
To see what’s going on, there are two types of indicators.
Leading indicators like the stock market and consumer sentiment are used to determine where the economy is heading, and to estimate the degree of expansion or contraction in the next phase of the economic cycle.
Lagging indicators such as unemployment rate, interest rate and business spending confirm what has already happened in the economy, and measure where we are in the current economic phase.
The Cyclical Lag
Making investment decisions based on what the stock market did yesterday or last year is like trying to drive while looking in the rear-view mirror. It doesn’t end well…
This is because, as mentioned before, the stock market is forward-looking: valuations reflect expected future earnings. Hence the stock market often turns upward while the economy is still in recession!
This lag between the stock market cycle and the economic cycle creates a challenge for investors as strong emotions at both peaks and troughs push people into buying high and selling low. That’s exactly the opposite of what they should ideally be doing.
Those who stay invested through entire economic cycles do significantly better than those who try to time the market by buying and selling.
Sitting on the sidelines and missing the best trading days is more harmful than losing some money from crashes.
Yet, it doesn’t feel that way. Overconfidence is part of the problem. We tend to think we are smarter than the rest and are able to predict the market.
Cycle of Market Emotions
Because emotions can be such a threat to our financial health, it is important to be aware of them. Knowing the cycle of market emotions can protect you from the negative consequences of impulsive and irrational reactions to these emotions.
Here are some facts that should put your mind at ease:
On average, corrections have occurred about once a year since 1900.
Less than 20% of all corrections turn into a bear market.
Historically, bear markets have happened every 3 to 5 years.
Nobody can predict consistently whether the market will rise or fall.
Bear markets become bull markets, and pessimism becomes optimism.
The stock market rises over time despite many short-term setbacks.
Now you can see why Warren Buffett (a successful investor) likes to say that you should be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful. He knows how quickly the mood can swing from fear to exuberant optimism.
In fact, when the mood in the market is overwhelmingly bleak, intelligent investors tend to view it as a positive sign that better times lie ahead.
The biggest danger isn’t a correction or a bear market, it’s being out of the market. Sitting on the sidelines even for short periods of time may be the costliest mistake of all.
Of course, this is all something we have learned from the past and the future is uncertain. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it tends to rhyme.
Now it’s time to talk about the importance of diversification.
The basic intuition is that you want assets in your portfolio that move in different directions.
Correlation measures the degree to which two assets move in relation to each other.
Ideally, you want assets that are negatively correlated so that as one goes up, the other goes down (i.e. hedges). But as long as the assets are not perfectly positively correlated, you will see diversification benefits.
Stocks represent one asset class. Some stocks have small or even negative correlations with each other but the stock market as a whole moves in cycles so you are exposed that cyclical risk.
Bonds represent another asset class. Bond prices move in the opposite direction of interest rates but generally in the same direction as stocks. As borrowing becomes more expensive and the cost of doing business rises due to inflation, companies (stocks) tend to do worse.
It’s easy to fall in the trap of recency bias: thinking that an asset class will perform well simply because it has performed well in the recent past.
For example, stocks have been doing good over the past couple decades but the last four decades were some of the most significant periods of asset price growth ever.
According this research paper by Artemis Capital Management, 91% of the price appreciation for a classic stocks and bonds portfolio (60/40) over the past 90 years comes from just 22 years between 1984 and 2007! This period is an outlier comparative to any other period in economic history, yet it’s treated this period as normalcy.
Hence, investing all your money in stocks is not a good idea. To build long-term wealth, you need to find assets that can perform when stocks and bonds collapse and boldly own them regardless of short term performance.
Asset classes worth considering as hedges to stocks and bonds include:
Gold because it protects against devaluation of cash. It’s the classic hedge to stocks, meaning that the price of gold tends to go up when the price of stocks go down. Buying physical gold and storing it in a safety deposit box is the best way to invest in gold.
Volatility funds since they are a great hedge for sustained trends in the stock market. For this you can buy an ETF that tracks a volatility index. You profit when stock prices move a lot in any direction. Using a football analogy, this would be winning by not letting in goals rather than scoring.
Cryptocurrencies due to their low correlation with stocks and bonds. However, this asset class only recently emerged which makes it hard to assess it on the long-term. You can a wide range of crypto on a cryptocurrency exchange like Binance. I personally only own Bitcoin.
Real estate can also be an interesting hedge but it depends on how you invest. Real estate investments can be categorised as direct (i.e. owning a house, renting out apartments etc.) or indirect (i.e. investing in funds called REITs that own real estate). It’s easier to buy indirect real estate since you can make transactions via your regular broker, but direct real estate is generally a better hedge.
Cash is also good to have. Although it decreases in value with inflation (i.e. rising of prices), it won’t be affected by a stock market crash, ceteris paribus.
Now if you decide to diversify your portfolio, you will need to come up with an asset allocation: how much to invest in each asset class?
When it comes to asset allocation, I encourage you to think for yourself. Do your own research and be self-aware. Here are some questions to consider:
How much risk am I willing to take?
What expected return do I aim for?
What time horizon do I want to invest on?
Nevertheless, I will present my strategy and asset allocation as a student on a limited budget. My advice is to not copy it but to think critically about it and maybe use it as an inspiration to create your own personalized strategy.
The Automated Buy-And-Hold Strategy
Before I present my strategy, I want to highlight the difference between trading and investing. Simply put, trading is about buying and selling for short-term profit while investing is about long-term gains.
The latter is more suitable for students and retail investors in general because it requires less financial knowledge and emotional discipline.
I invest using an automated buy-and-hold strategy. This is how it works.
1. Create a Savings Plan
The first step is to decide how much money you can save. This obviously depends on your personal situation.
Make sure you pick a feasible goal and pay yourself first. This is the key to being able to save consistently. The idea is that when you get your pay check (or allowance), immediately transfer a portion to your investment account.
2. Distribute Savings
The money saved now needs to be distributed according to your asset allocation. As of 20/07/21, this is how I have allocated my assets:
World ETF (CW8): 28%
EU ETF (MSED): 22%
US ETF (ESE): 3%
I prefer to buy exchange-traded funds (ETFs) over picking individual assets. ETFs track a certain index like the S&P 500 and are essentially baskets of assets that you buy and sell through a brokerage firm. Because you get exposure to all assets in that basket, ETFs are inherently diversified in a certain asset class.
By investing in an ETF tracking the S&P 500, you are investing in the US economy. By investing in ETFs that track economies around the world, you can build a highly geographically diversified portfolio.
3. Automate the Process
Asset prices fluctuate so if you buy them consistently you will be less affected. Automation is the key to consistency!
If you get a regular income, investing a fixed portion of your income at regular intervals (i.e. cost averaging) is a great way to reduce portfolio volatility.
If you don’t get a regular income, you can invest a fixed portion of the occasional lumps of income you get. That also works.
The reason I emphasize the automation part is that creating a habit of saving and investing is crucial to building long-term wealth.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. — Aristotle
4. Don’t Trade
Looking back at history, from 1997 through 2016, the S&P 500 returned an average of 7.7% per year. But your returns would almost be cut in half by missing the best 10 days in 20 years. It gets worse, take a look:
Moreover, 6 of the 10 best days in the market over the last 20 years occurred within 2 weeks of the 10 worst days.
Thus, selling your stocks when the market falls, hoping to buy the dip is very dangerous since you could miss the rebound if you time it incorrectly.
Now, do you see why you shouldn’t sell in panic? Fear isn’t rewarded, courage is. Don’t fear market turmoil. It’s the greatest opportunity for you to leapfrog to financial freedom.
5. Adopt a Long-Term Perspective
Be patient. If you have automated the investment process then just sit back, relax, and watch your investments grow exponentially over the years.
You need to realize that the stock market constantly goes up and down. But prices follow a long-term upward trend.
This sounds easy but is the hardest part! In the short-term you will see your portfolio go up and down and get the impression that you are not making any progress Like many things in life, non-linearity is involved.
Remember that the stock market rises over time despite many short-term setbacks. Therefore, regularly strengthening your positions should be intuitive. Even more so when you take compounding into account.
To illustrate this, consider this situation: you have €1,000 to invest right now and you can save €100 every month. The average annual interest rate of a savings account is 0.1% and the long-term average annual return of the MSCI world index is 10%.
You can choose between 4 scenarios: A. Only use the €1,000 and invest it in the savings account. B. Only use the €1,000 and invest in the ETF. C. Use the €1,000 and monthly savings to invest in the savings account. D. Use the €1,000 and monthly savings to invest in the ETF.
These are the resulting returns over 20 years compounded:
Option D looks the most attractive right?
That is because of the power of compounding. This goes to show that so much of financial success involves good habits practiced over a long time!
The Earlier The Better
You just saw the immense effect compounding can have on your returns.
Starting early is the key to such results. Time is one of the most important component in investment success.
Imagine you want to retire at 62 with $1 million. If your average annual return were 8%, here’s how much you’d need to invest every month to reach that $1 million, starting at different ages:
Starting at Age 22 (40 Years of Compounding): $310 per month
Starting at Age 32 (30 Years of Compounding): $710 per month
Starting at Age 42 (20 Years of Compounding): $1,757 per month
Starting at Age 52 (10 Years of Compounding): $5,552 per month
As you can see, the earlier you start investing, the more wealth you will accumulate over time.
Fees and Taxes
Last but not least, fees and taxes. The boring stuff that makes all the difference!
This is generally the last thing we think about when investing. However, fees and taxes can represent a huge cost if you are negligent about them.
Investment success should be measured by your net profit, not gross. Subtract transaction fees, management fees, and taxes. If you have not paid attention to those areas, you are likely to be shocked at how little of your returns you can actually keep.
One of the reasons I invest in ETFs is that the fees are low compared to mutual funds or trading individual stocks.
The average ETF carries a fee of 0.44%, which means the fund will cost you $4.40 per year for every $1,000 you invest. Most brokers have a wide selection of ETFs so make sure you look at the fee when selecting the fund you want to invest in.
The main tax when investing in stocks is generally the capital gains tax which is paid when you sell your investments at a gain.
This is why you should not sell your positions unless you really have to. I would recommend you to do some research on the taxation in your country.
Personally, I invest through a French broker and use a PEA which is a tax-efficient investment account that allows me to not pay capital gains tax if I keep my money on the account for 5 years or more. Similar accounts are likely to exist in your country as well.
In a Nutshell
Decide on a feasible fraction of your income that you can save. Regularly invest that amount on a set date in a diversified asset allocation. Make use of tax-efficient investment accounts and minimize fees. Then just be patient and let your investment portfolio compound in value over the long haul.