Reader Question: I'm Investing Regularly, but How Do I Know if I'm Doing Well?

This question actually came in just before I wrote about using Morningstar to track your investments against an appropriate benchmark, but it is certainly worth answering for the benefit of others as well. Understanding what you should be comparing your investments to will give you a clear picture of how well you’re doing, and whether or not you need to make changes.

Don’t Listen to Friends or Co-workers

This is a big mistake. How many times have you been having lunch in the break room when another co-worker begins bragging about their investment performance? They might be spouting off 20% returns, and you begin thinking to yourself about whether or not you’re experiencing the same kind of performance. Entertain them by listening to their story, but don’t rush back to your computer and pull up your 401k statement to see if you’re earning 20% as well.

The problem is that everyone has different levels of risk tolerance and investment objectives. Just because your brother is invested in some micro-cap China fund and doubling his money doesn’t mean it is something you should be invested in. There will always be people making more than you, and there will always be people making less than you. The key is determining whether or not your specific investments are doing what they are supposed to.

Use Benchmarks to Measure Your Success

The only way you can accurately determine how well your portfolio is performing is to compare it to a similar benchmark. If you saw a return of 40% last year, you probably think that is fantastic, right? Well, what if the benchmark for a similar portfolio returned 60% over the same period? Now your investments don’t look so hot as you’ve left a lot of money on the table.

I’m not going to go over the process of finding a benchmark step-by-step, since you can read that in the article I wrote about using Morningstar, but the basic premise is that you need to first understand how your portfolio is constructed. Is it heavy on domestic large-cap? Does you have a sizable bond position? Are you focused on international companies? If you don’t know what your investments are made of, you’ll never be able to accurately compare it to the right benchmark.

Check Regularly, but Not Too Often

You certainly want to keep tabs on your performance, but don’t fall into the habit of checking too often. The markets are volatile, and over the course of a few weeks or months, you can see some variation between your holdings and benchmarks. That’s fine in the short-term, but you will want to monitor your performance about once, maybe twice a year.

If you do notice that your small-cap growth portfolio is lagging a small-cap growth benchmark by more than a few percentage points, you may want to examine your holdings and find out why. The same goes if you find your holdings significantly outperform the benchmark. In many cases, it is simply due to style drift. This is when the managers begin to go astray from the fund objectives. It might be a growth fund, but they could be investing in more value stocks in an effort to improve performance. This can ultimately throw you off your target asset allocation.

Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle

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6 comments
Norks
Norks

When it will be continued?

Aaron
Aaron

Interesting article. I think there are certainly some investors, especially new ones, who check their stocks too often. There has to be that happy medium like you said.

Webomatica
Webomatica

I think the first bit of advice is the hardest to avoid (don't listen to friends and co-workers). I think I might adjust that to - listen to your friends and co-workers - but don't act on that information!

Avoiding the "keep up with the Joneses" feeling is a good point.

Pinyo
Pinyo

I love this quote:

"There will always be people making more than you, and there will always be people making less than you. The key is determining whether or not your specific investments are doing what they are supposed to."

MoneyNing
MoneyNing

I think most people need to actually use go with the index by buying index funds instead of trying to beat the index!!!

There aren't that many people that can outperform the market consistently in long periods of time!

The Dividend Guy
The Dividend Guy

I think one of your last statements is the most important: "If you do notice that your small-cap growth portfolio is lagging a small-cap growth benchmark by more than a few percentage points, you may want to examine your holdings and find out why"

This is crucial to learning from what works and what doesn't - at the end of the day if you are not beating the index then you really need to find out why and fix it.