Three Core Rules of a Successful Investor

Doc's note: Today, I'm finishing guru week with an essay from my good friend and Stansberry Research founder, Porter Stansberry. In this classic essay (originally published in 2013), Porter discusses the three traits of a successful investor and how to start applying them now.

Today, I (Porter) want to tell you about a few of the most important "core" ideas I've discovered that can help make you a successful individual investor.

First and foremost, the simple reason most people will never acquire a significant amount of wealth is because most people lack the discipline to save money. It's really that simple. Think about how much money you earned in 2018 after taxes. Think about how much you saved. Was it enough for you to meet your financial goals?

My recommendation is that you always save half of what you earn. That's what I've done my entire life. Now, understand, I count a lot of things as "savings." Real estate purchases, for example – even stuff like my mountain cabin – aren't really investments at all. They're a form of savings.

Saving half of what you earn isn't impossible. I know, because I've done it... even early in my career when I was working as an entry-level analyst making $34,000 annually. I lived on a friend's sofa for two years. I drove a 20-year-old Honda Accord. Now... none of these things may be attractive to you... but the point is, it can be done if you make it your top goal.

If you don't, it's unlikely that you'll ever possess a significant amount of wealth. That's not what we write about in our sales letters. But it's a real, hard-core fact: Without capital, it's impossible to make good investments.

Here's a good rule of thumb... get completely out of debt (except, perhaps, for your primary mortgage) and save at least $50,000 in cash before you consider investing in securities (stocks and bonds). I can imagine the howls I'll get for putting this simple rule out there. People will complain that I'm only interested in serving "rich" investors. That's nonsense... We sell the highest-quality investment research you can buy for as little as $200 per year. We care passionately about serving small investors and helping them develop an edge over Wall Street.

Nevertheless, this is the advice I will give my sons, so it's the advice I will give you. The principle behind this idea is very important to understand: Until you've mastered the discipline of saving money, you have no realistic chance of developing the discipline to manage capital. For another far more famous perspective on this idea, try reading The Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason.

Now, here's the bad news... Even if you develop the discipline to save a lot of capital, you are unlikely to be successful as an investor.

In my experience, the No. 1 reason most individual investors fail to achieve positive results is because they're totally unprepared to manage risk. So let me tell you as clearly as I possibly can: 90% of your success or failure as an investor will have nothing to do with your investment selections. Almost all of your returns will be dictated by asset allocation – how much of your portfolio you assign to categories like stocks, bonds, cash, and commodities – and how you manage risk.

Until you begin to rigorously allow your winners to run and always cut your losers, it will be nearly impossible for you to be successful. Consider your results for the last year and ask yourself how much better off you'd be today if you had simply cut your losses based on a 25% trailing-stop loss and allowed your winners to run rather than selling to book a quick profit.

And keep your initial position sizes small, so that no matter what happens, you can't suffer a catastrophic loss. In general, I recommend keeping no more than a few percent of your portfolio in your initial position sizes. That way, if something surprises you and goes wrong, it won't change what you eat for breakfast, nor will it ruin your investment returns for more than a quarter or two.

Unless you've been successful as an investor in securities for at least 10 years, I'd consider using trailing stops to be mandatory. Think of them like training wheels that are going to keep you from having any catastrophic wrecks.

Now... here's the last part to becoming more successful as an investor. Do your best to learn how to value a security.

A good way to teach yourself how to value a security is to think of a business you know well and look up the annual report (form 10-K) it filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Read it carefully – especially the notes at the end. Look at the financial statements. Figure out how the numbers correspond to the business activities. Once you've done this for two or three businesses, you'll be able to figure out how just about any business in the world works (except insurance companies, whose annual reports are ridiculously complex).

Once you've figured out how to look up the numbers, a final rule of thumb is to never pay more than 10 years' worth of cash profits, after all capital investments have been taken out. Understand, this is merely a guideline... but I'm certain that if you haven't been successful as an investor, the two most likely reasons for your underperformance are: 1) You suffered catastrophic losses, and 2) You've purchased too many expensive securities.

It's difficult to do well in stocks over time if you're buying them at expensive valuations. On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to lose money in stocks if you'll buy high-quality businesses at reasonable prices – especially if you're disciplined about managing risk.

If you apply these three rules to your portfolio, you'll be on your way to being a successful investor.


Porter Stansberry

Editor's note: Our offices here at Stansberry Research will be closed on September 2 in observance of Labor Day. Look forward to your next issue of Health & Wealth Bulletin on Tuesday, September 3.