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Now May Be The Time To Dive Into Dividends

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Soaring technology stocks led the longest bull market in history during the 1990s, driving investors to shun stocks of dividend-paying firms.

The steady stock performance of more conservative firms just seemed pale in comparison. But now, rising interest rates and slowing corporate earnings are causing investors to again turn to the tried-and-true: high-quality firms with strong cash flows, solid earnings and a healthy dividend stream.

Companies that can commit to paying a regular dividend are ones that generally are fundamentally strong and optimistic about their future. A company's dividend history is a good indication of its willingness to share profits and demonstrate accountability to investors. In periods of market uncertainty, these qualities become especially appealing to investors.

Stocks of companies that pay dividends generally have less price fluctuation than stocks of non-dividend payers. The dividend can create a cushion and smooth out a stock's price volatility. It's important to remember, however, that although dividend-paying stocks can add diversification to your portfolio and help minimize volatility, they still involve risk.

The 2003 Tax Act added allure to dividend-paying stocks. It lowered the tax rate for individuals on qualified dividends from as much as 38.6 percent to just 15 percent, depending on your income tax bracket.

This appreciation for dividends has spawned a renewed interest in mutual funds that pay dividends like the American Century Equity Income Fund (TWEIX), which has been investing in dividend-paying stocks for more than a decade. The companies in the fund typically are well-established and fundamentally strong, have steady earnings, a solid balance sheet and a history of paying dividends.

The size of dividends also is on the rise. Three quarters of the companies in the S&P 500 Index pay dividends, and more than half of them increased their payouts during 2004. That's proof of a lot of strong balance sheets. A business has to have the earnings to pay a dividend and a strong balance sheet to increase one.

Investors' preference for dividend-paying stocks is likely to continue, and so will the ability of many companies to continue paying dividends. Several years of economic uncertainty have driven companies to cut costs, reduce debt and rein in their capital spending. That means many of them now have a lot of cash on their balance sheets.

This combination of lower debt and larger cash pools gives them the ability to increase dividends. Even with the current emphasis returning more cash to shareholders, the current dividend payout ratio is still below the historical average.

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Help Is On The Way For 401 K Investors

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More employers are educating workers on 401(k) plans - from the benefits of tax-deferred growth to the importance of consistent saving. However, research shows that employees are still in the dark when it comes to investing their assets.

According to a recent study by human resources firm Hewitt Associates, most employees didn't rebalance or re-allocate their 401(k) portfolios in 2004. Only one in six actually made a transfer within their 401(k) accounts that year.

The study, which examined more than 2.5 million employees eligible for 401(k) plans, also found that many participants were taking on too much risk by investing a significant portion of their savings in a single stock. Company stock was the single largest holding, accounting for approximately 27 percent of participants' total 401(k) balances. And more than a quarter of employees held half or more of their total 401(k) balances in their employer's stock.

While some employees took on too much risk by investing heavily in company stock, other employees didn't invest aggressively enough. The study found that workers in their 20s invested less in equities than workers in their 30s.

Now there's help for investors who don't have either the time or the expertise to manage their own 401(k) investments. Defined contribution plan providers such as AIG VALIC, Fidelity Investments, Great-West Retirement Services, Merrill Lynch, the Principal Financial Group and TIAA-CREF have partnered with Chicago-based Ibbotson Associates to manage participants' accounts.

Eligible participants who elect the service will have their money allocated to a customized portfolio that is rebalanced regularly and adjusted over time to reflect the investor's changing life circumstances.

"401(k)s are becoming the primary savings vehicle for retirement in this country," says Roger Ibbotson, chairman and founder of Ibbotson Associates and finance professor at the Yale School of Management. "With so much riding on your 401(k) account, it's very important to get professional, unbiased advice." - NU

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4 Tips To Build A Successful Portfolio

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Walking through the financial maze of stocks, bonds and mutual funds can be quite a challenge. American Century Investments offers the following tips to give you the know-how on building a profitable portfolio.

* Know your goals. Consider how much money you'll need for your children's education or your retirement. Whatever your vision for the future might be, set your goals and develop a concrete plan for meeting them.

* Define your investment time horizon. If you're not planning on retiring anytime soon, you might want to have a portfolio that includes more long-term investments. If retirement is just around the corner, consider a more conservative approach.

* Determine your risk tolerance. Figure out your risk comfort level and compare that with what you can afford. In general, the longer you have to invest, the bigger risk you can take.

* Consult a professional. In order to avoid financial pitfalls later on, it is often wise to seek professional guidance when putting together a portfolio.

"Recent research shows that investors continue to grapple with some of the most basic investment concepts, suggesting a greater need for financial advice and guidance," said Doug Lockwood, a certified financial planner.

To help investors meet their financial goals, American Century Investments has developed On Plan Investing, a program designed to help investors build and maintain diversified investment portfolios - at no additional cost.

Combining educational tools, advice, market insight and investment products, On Plan Investing helps investors develop a personal investment strategy, whether they are new to investing, seeking guidance but still want control over their investment mix, need help positioning their portfolios with a long-term perspective or need help understanding how the markets work.

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Option Pricing With Better Trades

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Option pricing is a mystery to most traders. They struggle to comprehend terms like implied and historical volatility or intrinsic and time value, or the "Greeks" (Delta, vega, theta, gamma, rho...). These terms are intimidating and my experience suggests that at least half the folks you hear talking about them do not really understand very much about them. It is important to at least be intellectually honest about it and know what you don't know. It is also a good idea to debunk your vocabulary and get what you do know (or think you know) right. And because it is easy to get a head ache from trying to read and comprehend the myriad of equations and models generated from minds of multi-degreed scholars speaking a language only they seem to understand, it is comforting to know you do not have to learn a whole lot about the technical math soup. It is however, mandatory that you gain some working skills in how to recognize and flow with the option prices or you will get whipsawed and shredded by them.

It is not unlike the engineering, manufacturing, physics and computer technology that goes into a modern car. Any 10 year old can start it and drive down the road or off a cliff. The skill to use it correctly is mandatory but the technical wizardry to understand and construct it is not.

So option pricing must be understood in order to trade with any consistency. One major point is that option pricing is not static or consistent. The pricing structure is a moving target because the interaction of the market and the Market Makers constantly adjust the pricing.

Price comes from the floor... Models come from laboratories and do not dictate where the price will go. Rather, they try to predict it.

Historically, the idea of options is not new. Ancient Romans, Grecians, and Phoenicians traded options against outgoing cargoes from their local seaports. Modern techniques derive their impetus from a formal history dating back to 1877.

* 1877- Charles Castelli wrote a book entitled The Theory of Options in Stocks and Shares.

* 1900- Louis Bachelier is recognized for the earliest known analytical valuation for options. His work interested a professor at MIT named Paul Samuelson.

* 1955- Samuelson wrote an unpublished paper titled, "Brownian Motion in the Stock Market."

* 1956- A. James Boness wrote, "A Theory and Measurement of Stock Option Value". His work served as a precursor to that of Fischer Black and Myron Scholes.

* 1969-1973- Fischer Black and Myron Scholes introduced their landmark option pricing model

No one discovered the "mother lode" but rather successive scholars added to the work of predecessors. Black and Scholes were noted with the Nobel Prize because of their leap forward and the remarkable accuracy of their model. Since 1973, other scholars have expanded the Black and Scholes Option Pricing Model.

* 1973- Robert Merton relaxed the assumption of no dividends.

* 1976- Jonathan Ingerson went one step further and relaxed the assumption of no taxes or transaction costs.

* 1976- Merton removed the restriction of constant interest rates. The results of this evolution are alarmingly accurate valuation models for stock options.

Ok, you think that is boring you should read some of the papers and equations (I have and it was not fun).

Modern option pricing techniques are among the most mathematically complex of all applied areas of finance but they have reached the point where they can calculate, with alarming accuracy. Most of the models and techniques employed today are rooted in the Black and Scholes model. One notable major advance is the Cox, Ross, Rubenstein binomial model widely used in more volatile stocks. In fact the brainiacs currently have 7-9 different models out there trying to out do each other. Here is the basic idea...

Option Pricing Model: A mathematical model is used to calculate the theoretical or fair value of an option. Inputs to option pricing models typically include:

* the price of the underlying instrument (stock): Fixed

* the option strike price: Fixed

* the time remaining till the expiration date: Fixed

* the volatility of the stock: Fixed

* the risk-free interest rate (e.g., the Treasury Bill interest rate): Fixed

The historical accuracy of the prediction is quite good but short term variations to the price models can and do "Kill" traders on a regular basis. In the long run the models are cool but they are THEORECTICAL and subject to CHANGE!!!!! The difficulty is that the vast majority of option traders do not have the knowledge or even the viewpoint to see the variation when they come. Nor are they able to reflect anomalies in the price structure when they look at an option chain to get a price.

This is one of the reasons I so dislike Prescriptive Option Strategies. The prescription dictates how to make the trade. It dictates buy/sell, strike price and which month. Well that's just fine if the market stays constant and the price structure does not move. Ok... so "hey market, I am going to trade now... could you please just stay calm and act really normal and don't do anything rash until I am through? Thanks, that would be real nice of you." Somehow I don't think it works that way. The real problem with most option traders is that they don't know what they don't know.

For example; today, with the stock at support and moving up it may or may not be a good idea to buy a call option. It may or may not be a good idea to trade the In the Money strike price. It may or may not be a good idea to trade the next month out. The pricing composition will reveal hidden potholes if you can read it. If the prescription can work, great! But if the pricing landscape is significantly off, you may have a prescription for disaster. Ignorance may be bliss but it is expensive.

Market Makers

One major area of misunderstanding is market makers. The market maker takes a risk by pricing and selling an option. The response by the market to the offering causes the market maker to make adjustments to the price. They have two goals... make as many traders as possible and try to make some money on most of the trades. They have two tools to try and make this work; the bid / ask spread and the cost of time. The market maker is taking the risk by entering into a contract with risk. They lay off that risk ASAP by either buying the same option (sell a 45 call and buy a 45 call) or buying stock to deliver in case of exercise. They neutralize their risk and collect a small premium for the transaction. If the buying and/or selling pressure, (coming from brokers and/or traders) starts to change they respond by pricing to meet the market action. They don't know you, or stock you. They need you and don't care if you make money or not. They just want your order flow. Many myths abound about market makers and you need to understand them and their motives. (See last newsletter: "Those Darn Market Makers")


Option pricing is most sensitive to volatility. The theoretical option price is derived using a historical volatility, usually 12 months. The model pricing reflects that time frame. Short term option trading and pricing is being done in an environment that is subject to current market whims and conditions.

The current climate can be very volatile and the long-term picture can be quite stable. That throws the pricing model off dramatically, but it is a tip to savvy traders. If the short term is more volatile than the historical, the prices will be pumped up and become expensive and unstable. Extra time value is pumped temporarily into the option to reflect the current conditions (higher perceived volatility). If the price action calms down or stabilizes, the "Fluff" can be drawn back out very quickly. For example, rising prices calm the market and reduce fear and volatility. The typical option trader does not see this and then feels violated and cheated when their stock moves in the direction of their trade and they don't get the expected profit in the option. The market breathes a sigh and the volatility shrinks taking their profit with it.

An irony in the discrepancy between theoretical/fair value and the actual price is that the actual price is feeding the 12 month volatility and constantly adjusting it. Today's erratic volatility will be smoothed into the ongoing, ever-adjusting, 12-month moving volatility number.

Next newsletter, I will introduce the X Factor Options Trading Graph and show you how to put all this stuff into a picture format. Pictures are easy to digest a lot of data (e.g. stock charts). My students often say, "Trading options without X Factor is like trading stocks without a chart".

Options can seem simple as long as you don't learn too much. But they can seem overwhelming if you try to learn too much. There is a happy medium. The ten year old does not have to become a manufacturer to start the car, but he does need some practice and maturing to get behind the wheel. Stay tuned.

See you in the free web seminars and I hope to see you in my "Trades Forge" 2-day trading camp.

Ryan Litchfield with Better Trades

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Investing The Right Way

(category: Investing, Word count: 472)
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The world of investments offers a dangerous draw: huge rewards with the chance of terrible losses. Investors love the idea of accumulating wealth, but no one likes losing money. The trick is to know how to invest with minimal risk. Nobody can predict the fluctuations of the market completely accurately, but as you start investing, you'll learn to take the losses and look forward to the next market high.

The market is uncontrollable, but it helps to know what you're investing in. Become familiar with the products and businesses you invest in before you make the jump. Too many new investors invest in a hot stock from the previous year, excited by the market high. Remember: market highs never last. It's smart to invest in a strong stock with a record than a trend that's in one year and out the next.

Just as important as the product is the reasoning behind your choosing it. If you know why you're investing in a stock, you'll always know what your next move is. For example, if you invest for the sake of profits only, when prices fall you'll know to drop out, instead of fretting over whether to wait and cross your fingers for the next market high, or cut your losses.

Investments are all about timing - not the timing of the market highs and lows, but the timing of your moves in relation to them. You have to know when to take profits and when to cut losses. Some say when the market is up, run a profit in case the market keeps climbing. However, others worry the market will fall, so it's best to back out while you're up. When the market is low, everyone knows to cut your losses - back out before it gets worse.

Don't invest in what you can't afford, and don't invest without a good reason. While the market highs are satisfyingly rewarding, the market lows are part of the ride. Although much of investing is gut instinct, you can't afford to make reckless decisions. Invest to your advantage, rather than let the market rip at your bank account.

The best thing to do is study the market. Don't jump to invest before you study the product's record and think over your reasoning. Some good books about investing include The Real Life Investing Guide by Kenan Pollack and Eric Heighberger, The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias, and The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money and Investing (3rd Edition) by Kenneth M. Morris and Alan M. Siegel. Know what you're doing and why before you start investing.

When you make informed choices, you can gain many benefits from the market. The business world is unpredictable, but when the market's up, the rewards are well worth the gamble.

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A Murky Crystal Ball

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While the early results of earnings season may not be giving investors much to cheer about, it is a nice diversion to the stock market's May-June sell-off.

And like a much needed summer holiday, it may be just the break penny stock investor's need before heading into the autumn trading season. But until then, we must weather a turbulent earnings season.

Now, I'm not sure if your favorite penny stock company has announced their quarterly results yet, but I have noticed that there seems to be something missing at the end of (some of) the reports. And it's making my ability to predict the future that much more difficult.

Typically, at the end of an earnings report, a company will finish off teasingly with a "forecast" or an "outlook" for the next quarter and sometimes the remainder of the year. Something that will make us stick by their side through thick and thin.

Unfortunately, market volatility and ever growing geopolitical tensions are making it tougher for companies to predict what's going on quarter-to-quarter.

Lebanon may not be an economic powerhouse that's part of your water cooler banter...but last week's Israeli bombing was enough to shake global markets. In addition, oil prices hit a new record and the Vix index of U.S. stock-market volatility shot up 29% in a week.

It's tough enough trying to accurately predict how well your company is going to do quarter-to-quarter when times are good. Throw in rising tensions in the Middle East, a depressed market, and an all too present hurricane season, and you've got a murky crystal ball.

Why? When consumers get strained by higher prices and pay more to borrow, investors are worried that they'll have less to spend; lowering overall demand for good and services. In return, some businesses need to absorb higher costs without scaring away customers. And customers like you and me are the ones that impact a company's earnings.

Still, penny stock investors ought not be too nervous about market jitters. Penny stock companies, by their very nature, can take advantage of changing economic conditions and opportunities better than big companies.

And a jittery market means there are still lots of good buying opportunities out there. There is obvious strength in oil and gas and precious metals. But for penny stock investors, you want to find something that isn't obvious. Or at least isn't obvious to the rest of the investing herd.

Predicting the future of the stock market day-to-day is difficult enough, let alone trying to guess what you're going to do quarter-to-quarter; unless your name is Marty McFly, you own a De Lorean, and have a flux capacitor. In which case, we need to talk.

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Cameco S Uranium For New Mexico S New Enrichment Facility

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Guess what? Our recent investigation shows the uranium to be enriched in the LES/Urenco proposed enrichment facility in Lea County, New Mexico may come neither from uranium properties in New Mexico nor anywhere else in the United States. Just as New Mexico's nuclear/uranium mining renaissance was ready to get underway, a deal may have already been cut to enrich uranium mined in a foreign country. Louisiana Energy Services (LES), through the consortium's general partner Urenco Ltd., may have struck a deal with Canadian-based Cameco Corp. Will this uranium come from Canada or Kazakhstan?

According to New Mexico State Senator Carroll H. Leavell, the uranium ore to be enriched at the facility near Eunice, New Mexico facility would be coming from outside the United States. Senator Leavell told StockInterview, "The uranium ore will be coming out of Saskatchewan." When we asked if the uranium to be enriched in New Mexico would come from the Athabasca Basin, an area hosting the world's richest grades of uranium and which is also located in northern Saskatchewan, Senator Leavell claimed he wasn't sure where the Athabasca Basin was. But he told us that Urenco Ltd informed him the uranium was coming from that western Canadian province.

We can only speculate the uranium producer might be Cameco Corp. On July 22, 2002, Cameco signed a Memorandum of Agreement with LES, along with Urenco Ltd, Westinghouse Electric Company, Fluor Daniel and the affiliates of U.S. utilities: Exelon, Duke and Entergy. In an email response to our inquiry, earlier this week, Netherlands-based Urenco Ltd Communications Coordinator April Wildegose-Mistry informed us, "Cameco Corp was part of the original LES project. They pulled out around March 2003 as they needed to focus on other business issues."

We have also asked to interview Urenco's CEO. Perhaps he may clarify this matter for us. One industry insider told us Cameco stated its continued support for the LES initiative after it withdrew as a partner. However, the recent joint venture company, Enrichment Technology Company, formed by Areva and Urenco may open the possibility the uranium could also come from Areva's uranium interests in Athabasca. AREVA is a Paris-based company offering technological solutions for nuclear power generation, and electricity transmission and distribution.

This development could further irritate at least one New Mexico legislator. State representative John A. Heaton from Carlsbad, New Mexico, and who also sits on New Mexico's Energy and Natural Resource Committee, was adamant about U.S. independence from foreign energy sources. He told StockInterview, "We need to use the assets we have and not be dependent upon foreign countries. I worry a lot about the dependence we have on other countries."

In this instance, Heaton might be getting a double-whammy of foreign dependence. Not only is Urenco Ltd a foreign-owned and controlled company (a Dutch/ British/German consortium), but the uranium its New Mexico facility would be enriching could come from at least one foreign source, Canada. Because the uranium ore might be sourced from Cameco, yet another country's uranium could be supplying the New Mexico enrichment facility: Kazakhstan.

Cameco plans to boost uranium mining in this former Soviet country to a level which might approach its uranium production in the Athabasca Basin. Kazakhstan recently joined the "Putin Alliance" of uranium-producing countries. On June 22nd, Kazakhstan signed a contract worth $1 billion to supply Russia's Tekhsnabexport to supply Russians with uranium through the year 2020. The Economist Magazine's Economic Intelligence Unit recently issued a caution on this country.

We asked our uranium industry analyst, David Miller, about this new twist in the LES/Urenco story. Miller is a third-term Wyoming legislator, who is an original member of the Wyoming Energy Commission and a past member of the National Council of State Legislator's (NCSL) Energy Committee., now serving on a NCSL-related committee. Miller is also president of Strathmore Minerals, a company which is now advancing its properties through the permitting process in New Mexico. Miller told us, "The State of New Mexico may miss out on the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues from potential severance, ad valorem, sales and other taxes the domestic industry would pay the state to mine uranium in New Mexico. Instead, the foreign uranium pays zero taxes to enter the state for enrichment." In other words, Cameco or another may be getting a free ride on taxes.

Ominously, Miller asks these questions, "The real question for New Mexico is this: What happens to the part of the uranium that does not go onto the fabrication plant? Does it stay in New Mexico? Is it shipped back to Russia, Kazakhstan or Saskatchewan?" This gave us pause for thought. After it leaves New Mexico, how do we know it would be used for civilian energy purposes? Could it be transported elsewhere and be more highly enriched? That's just speculation.

Miller recommended that New Mexico legislators demand the LES plant be fed uranium mined in New Mexico, not in Canada or Kazakhstan. "If this were to happen," Miller wrote in an email to us, "thousands of new mining jobs would be created in areas of New Mexico which need the most economic development." Once the world's leading uranium producer, New Mexico's Grants Uranium Belt is again being explored by more than a dozen companies. Some hope to permit and operate new uranium production centers in New Mexico. We trust this latest wrinkle will awaken New Mexico's legislators and help them protect uranium mining developments in their states. Perhaps their voters, who might be looking for higher paying jobs, would appreciate that.

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The Magic Of Compounding Part I

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Some of you know about this, some of you don't. Either way I'm going to give you the basics of compounding, plus a couple of new slants on the concept. I suggest you read The Magic of Compounding not just once, but several times. If you have children, print this write-up, and give it to them to read. If they master this concept they will become rich.

The Basics

Compounding describes how numbers, or money, can grow. Numbers can grow in an arithmetic progression, for example 2,4,6,8,10,12 or 3,6,9,12,15,18, where one unit is added on at each step in the progression and that action provides the growth, or, numbers can grow exponentially, 2,4,8,16,32,64. In an exponential progression the increase comes by doubling the number at each step in the progression. See the difference? This is compounding.

Now the really amazing part, the magic, comes when you see how fast compounding will make money grow. And guess what! That's right, I've got a little game to play with you, a little story to tell, which will illustrate this principle. This puzzle is as old as J.P. Morgan's moustache comb, so if you've already been schooled in compounding you have heard it before. But didn't I tell you to read this section several times? OK, then, solve the puzzle with us once more while I tell it for the first time to the children for whom "The Magic of Compounding" has just been printed out.

The Puzzle

I'm a wealthy and generous man, and I want to hire you to work for me for one month. Since I'm also flexible, I give you a choice: you can choose to be paid the entire month's salary up front on the first day of your employment, or, I will pay you 1 cent the first day. After that I'll double your pay every day for the rest of the month, but you won't get the money until the last day of the month. So on the first day you'll work 8 whole hours, and you'll have 1 cent coming to you. But on the second day you'll earn 2 cents. Hold on, it gets better. On the 3rd you'll have earned 4 cents, the day after that 8 cents and so on. Saturdays and Sundays are included just to give you a better chance. Oh, by the way, if you take your pay all at once on the first day I'll give you a million bucks ($1,000,000.00) cash. Seems like an easy choice, doesn't it?

Well, you decide for yourself. Now let's look at how much the fellows who picked the penny-a-day plan are going to have at month's end. Remember, on the one hand $1,000,000.00. On the other hand you get a penny the first day, two cents on the second day, 4 cents on the 3rd day, and 16 cents on the 5thday. If you keep working the numbers by the 15th day, you are up to $163.84. By the 18th day, you have cracked the $1,000 dollar mark coming in with $1310.72.

At this point you have to start thinking to yourself that it has taken 18 days, and I am only at $1300 and change. Was I better off taking the million dollars like the other day offered and taking a one million dollar lump sum payment? Maybe you were let's see what happens. Keep in mind, we are continuing to double our money every day and we have 12 days to go.

On the 20th day, you are up to $5,242.88. Your numbers quickly move up from here on successive days:

Day 21 $10,485.76

Day 22 $20,971.52

Day 23 $41,943.04

Day 24 $83,886.08

Day 25 $167,772.16

Day 26 $335,544.32

By the way, did any of you ask me what month of the year we're in? Is it February with 28 days, or leap year with 29 days, or September with 30 days, or December with 31 days? You should realize that it's going to make a difference. Do you want the million dollars? Ask your kids again which they would choose?

Day 27 $671,088.64

Day 28 $1,342,177.28

Day 29 $2,684,354.56

Day 30 $5,368,254.56

Day 31 $10,737,418.24

If you work for me in September with 30 days you make over $5,000,000. In December it's over $10,000,000!

I have never met the child who didn't leap at the $1,000,000 on day one. This is because the human mind thinks arithmetically, not exponentially. You might say that we are hardwired to think in this linear fashion. The software in our brains compels us to think about progressions as being simple arithmetic ones. Luckily though, how we think about things, our prejudices, our attitudes, and our mindsets, can all be changed and worked with. We can update the software! We can consciously change the way we think about numbers, money and investing by absorbing new information, namely, that when you make your money compound you can get rich sooner rather than later.

Start thinking exponentially, Make Money Now


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Is There Really A Magic Formula For Investing

(category: Investing, Word count: 1887)
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One question almost every investor asks at some point is whether it is possible to achieve above market returns by selecting a diversified group of stocks according to some formula, rather than having to evaluate each stock from every angle. There are obvious advantages to such a formulaic approach. For the individual, the amount of time and effort spent caring for his investments would be reduced, leaving more time for him to spend on more enjoyable and fulfilling tasks. For the institution, large sums of money could be deployed without having to rely upon the investing acumen of a single talented stock picker. Many of the proposed systems also offer the advantage of matching the inflow of investable funds with investment opportunities. An investor who follows no formula, and evaluates each stock from every angle, may often find himself holding cash. Historically, this has been a problem for some excellent stock pickers. So, there are real advantages to favoring a formulaic approach to investing if such an approach would yield returns similar to the returns a complete stock by stock analysis would yield.

Many investment writers have proposed at least one such formulaic approach during their lifetime. The most promising formulaic approaches have been articulated by three men: Benjamin Graham, David Dreman, and Joel Greenblatt. As each of these approaches appeals to logic and common sense, they are not unique to these three men. But, these are the three names with which these approaches are usually most closely associated; so, there is little need to draw upon sources beyond theirs.

Benjamin Graham wrote three books of consequence: "Security Analysis", "The Intelligent Investor", and "The Interpretation of Financial Statements". Within each book, he hints at various workable approaches both in stocks and bonds; however, he is most explicit in his best known work, "The Intelligent Investor". There, Graham discusses the purchase of shares for less than two - thirds of their net current asset value. The belief that this method would yield above market returns is supported on both empirical and logical grounds. In fact, it currently enjoys far too much support to be practicable. Public companies rarely trade below their net current asset values. This is unlikely to change in the future. Buyout firms, unconventional money managers, and vulture investors now check such excessive bouts of public pessimism by taking large or controlling stakes in troubled companies. As a result, the investing public is less likely to indulge its pessimism as feverishly as it once did; for, many cheap stocks now have the silver lining of being takeover targets. As Graham's net current asset value method is neither workable at present, nor is likely to prove workable in the future, we must set it aside.

David Dreman is known as a contrarian investor. In his case, it is an appropriate label, because of his keen interest in behavioral finance. However, in most cases the line separating the value investor from the contrarian investor is fuzzy at best. Dreman's contrarian investing strategies are derived from three measures: price to earnings, price to cash flow, and price to book value. Of these measures, the price to earnings ratio is by far the most conspicuous. It is quoted nearly everywhere the share price is quoted. When inverted, the price to earnings ratio becomes the earnings yield. To put this another way, a stock's earnings yield is "e" over "p". Dreman describes the strategy of buying stocks trading at low prices relative to their earnings as the low P/E approach; but, he could have just as easily called it the high earnings yield approach. Whatever you call it, this approach has proved effective in the past. A diversified group of low P/E stocks has usually outperformed both a diversified group of high P/E stocks and the market as a whole.

This fact suggests that investors have a very hard time quantifying the future prospects of most public companies. While they may be able to make correct qualitative comparisons between businesses, they have trouble assigning a price to these qualitative differences. This does not come as a surprise to anyone with much knowledge of human judgment (and misjudgment). I am sure there is some technical term for this deficiency, but I know it only as "checklist syndrome". Within any mental model, one must both describe the variables and assign weights to these variables. Humans tend to have little difficulty describing the variables - that is, creating the checklist. However, they rarely have any clue as to the weight that ought to be given to each variable. This is why you will sometimes hear analysts say something like: the factor that tipped the balance in favor of online sales this holiday season was high gas prices (yes, this is an actual paraphrase; but, I won't attribute it, because publicly attaching such an inane argument to anyone's name is just cruel). It is true that avoiding paying high prices at the pump is a possible motivating factor in a shopper's decision to make online Christmas purchases. However, it is an immaterial factor. It is a mere pebble on the scales. This is the same kind of thinking that places far too much value on a stock's future earnings growth and far too little value on a stock's current earnings.

The other two contrarian methods: the low price to cash flow approach and the low price to book value approach work for the same reasons. They exploit the natural human tendency to see a false equality in the factors, and to run down a checklist. For instance, a stock that has a triple digit price to cash flow ratio, but is in all other respects an extraordinary business, will be judged favorably by a checklist approach. However, if great weight is assigned to present cash flows relative to the stock price, the stock will be judged unfavorably. This also illustrates the second strength of the three contrarian methods. They heavily weight the known factors. Of course, they do not heavily weight all known factors. They only consider three easily quantifiable known factors. An excellent brand, a growing industry, a superb management team, etc. may also be known factors. However, they are not precisely quantifiable. I would argue that while these factors may not be quantifiable they are calculable; that is to say, while no exact value may be assigned to them, they are useful data that ought to be considered when evaluating an investment.

There is the possibility of a middle ground here. These three contrarian methods may be used as a screen. Then, the investor may apply his own active judgment to winnow the qualifying stocks down to a final portfolio. Personally, I do not believe this is an acceptable compromise. These three methods do not adequately model the diversity of great investments. Therefore, they must either exclude some of the best stocks or include too many of the worst stocks. It is wise to place great weight upon each of these measures; however, it is foolish disqualify any stock because of a single criterion (which is exactly what such a screen does).

Finally, there is Joel Greenblatt's "magic formula". This is the most interesting formulaic approach to investing, both because it does not subject stocks to any true/false tests and because it is a composite of the two most important readily quantifiable measures a stock has: earnings yield and return on capital. As you will recall, earnings yield is simply the inverse of the P/E ratio; so, a stock with a high earnings yield is simply a low P/E stock. Return on capital may be thought of as the number of pennies earned for each dollar invested in the business. The exact formula that Greenblatt uses is described in "The Little Book That Beats the Market". However, the formula used is rather unimportant. Over large groups of stocks (which is what Greenblatt suggests the magic formula be used on) any differences between the various return on capital formulae will not have much affect on the performance of the portfolios constructed. Greenblatt claims his magic formula may be used in two different ways: as an automated portfolio generation tool or as a screen. For an investor like you (that is, one with sufficient curiosity and commitment to frequent a site such as this) the latter use is the more appropriate one. The magic formula will serve you well as a screen. I would argue, however, that you needn't limit yourself to stocks screened by the magic formula, if you have full confidence in your judgment regarding some other stock.

These four formulaic approaches (the three from Dreman and the one from Greenblatt) will likely yield returns greater than or equal to the returns you would obtain from an index fund. Therefore, you would do better to invest in your own basket of qualifying stocks than in the prefabricated market basket. If you want to be a passive investor, or believe yourself incapable of being an active investor, these formulaic approaches are your best bet. In fact, if I were approached by an institution making long - term investments and using only a very small percentage of the fund for operating expenses, I would recommend an automated process derived from these four approaches. I would also recommend that 100% of the fund's investable assets be put into equities, but that is a discussion for another day (in fact, it's a discussion for Tuesday; my next podcast is devoted to the dangers of diversification). If, however, you believe you have what it takes to be an active investor, and that is truly what you wish to be, then, I would suggest you do not use these approaches for anything more than helping you generate some useful ideas.

If you choose this path, you need to be clear about what being an active investor entails. Read this next part very carefully (it is correct even though it may not appear to be): I have never found a screen that generates more than one buy order per hundred stocks returned. Even after I have narrowed the list of possible stocks down by a cursory review of the industry and the business itself, I have never found a method that can consistently generate more than one buy order per twenty - five annual reports read. Here, I am citing my best past experiences. In my experience, most screens result in less than one buy order per three hundred stocks returned, and I usually read more like fifty to a hundred annual reports per buy order at a minimum. You may choose to invest in far more stocks than I do. Perhaps instead of limiting yourself to your five to twelve best ideas as I do, you might want to put money into your best twenty - five to thirty ideas. Do the math, and you'll see that is still quite a bit of homework. That's why remaining a passive investor is the best bet for most people. The time and effort demanded of the active investor is simply too taxing. They have more important, more enjoyable things to do. If that's true for you, the four formulaic approaches outlined above should guide you to above market returns.

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