How regular investors beat the stock market crashes
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Those who have been investing regularly have soundly beaten the dotcom crash of 2000-2003 and the crash of 2007-2009 during the early part of the ongoing economic crisis.
If you invested money at the end of 1999 and kept it invested until today, you'll have lived through two pretty bad falling markets. The first of which knocked off half the value of your investment and the other, one third.
Still, despite this being one of the worst periods for investing ever, you could have turned a £1,000 investment into £1,500 after investing costs. This means you made close to 2% pa by putting your money in near the height of the dotcom bubble and keeping it there until the end of 2012.
To work out these numbers from FTSE data, I assumed you reinvested the dividends, which is income paid to shareholders from company profits. I also assumed you invested in simple funds that track the UK stock market, so the returns over the 13-year period are adjusted based on my estimates of the costs you would have paid for those funds, including hidden costs and the costs of putting the fund in a share ISA, pension, or similar wrapper. I bore in mind that costs for these funds and wrappers have come down over the noughties and tens (or whatever it is we call this current decade).
This 2% pa is less than inflation and less than you'd have got by moving your money between top savings accounts. Bad periods go with the territory with investing, but that's no comfort to anyone who made a one-off investment in 1999 or 2000.
Regular investors have done much better
There's no question that 2% pa is a poor return for stock market investors, who expect better for the risks they're taking.
Since even economic experts have a terrible record at guessing when a crash will happen, the best way for most of us to deal with those bad periods is to not invest all your money in one go: save some money to invest later or invest steadily from your income.
Luckily, most people won't have put all their money into the stock market at the end of 1999 and left it at that for the next 13 years. Instead, you'll have invested at other times in between, too. Better times – such as after the crashes when share prices were much lower.
If you invested £1,000 a year in a stock market tracking fund at the end of every year starting in 1999, you would have invested £13,000 overall, but your pot will have grown by the end of 2012 to nearly £19,000.
Some of those investments would have hardly budged and others will have done well.
The £1,000 you invested in time for the 2008 crash has grown to just £1,130 in five years, making you barely 2.5% per year. But this is compensated for by the £1,000 you invested at the end of 2004, for example, which has grown to nearly £2,000 since then, or the investment at the end of 2003, which has grown to more than £2,300.
Overall, each investment of £1,000 has averaged not much more than 5% per year, because of the high returns you made when you bought at lower points, i.e. more cheaply.
It's still pretty good for one of the worst times to be investing
5% plus is much more satisfactory, but still not spectacular.
By investing during this period, you've taken extra risks to get returns that aren't really that much better than savers who stuck their cash in fixed-term cash ISAs and savings accounts. Still, it's pretty good for a bad period for investing overall. Anyone sheltering their investments in Share ISAs or pensions will have beaten inflation. Most savers haven't done that.
Investors would hope to do better in the future. Share investing remains one of the few ways that is likely to protect your money from inflation, provided you're able to invest for long periods, while it also has potential for greater upside. While you shouldn't expect to make more than a percentage point or two above inflation, that is actually all you might need, provided you're investing enough money.
Where investors go wrong
Most investors invest regularly, not just at the height of bubbles, so why are so many of them still deeply disappointed with their returns?
Firstly, they have been misled by ludicrous claims in the 90s that they should expect to make 15-20% pa in the following decade. Their expectations were too high.
Secondly, most people don't invest in funds that track the stock market. Instead, they invest in funds led by fund managers who actively try to beat the market. The problem is that the vast majority of these managers not only fail to beat the market, they fail to beat most trackers as well.
Their record has been convincingly compared to monkeys with pins and to children competing in multi-school investing competitions, both of which have similar records to 'expert' fund managers.
Thirdly, people tend to invest much larger sums of money at times when they shouldn't. They're encouraged to by all the newspapers, experts, advisers and others who have things they want to sell while they are hot (and about to cool down rapidly). This happens when there has already been lots of excitement and a bubble has formed; when people are convinced that the bubble will never burst. But it always does – typically right after you excitedly put all your savings into it.
What happens after that is a collapse, a panic, the investors withdraw their money at a loss, and they refuse to invest a large amount of money in the stock market again until the next bubble is well under way – when the moronic media, and experts, have managed to convince them (again) that this time really is different and the bubble will just keep growing...
The fourth reason is over trading. People swap in and out of different funds and shares in order to try to get super rich by timing their transactions. They don't realise, or can't accept, that successful investors, and the greatest investors, usually just buy great companies and hold on to them for years and years. The most successful fund manager currently active in the UK, for example, holds shares for an average 15 years, according to Hargreaves Lansdown.
Investors don't take the time to add up the costs of trading, and trading often. Each time they sell it costs money. When they buy a new share it costs them again, eating into their gains every time. When you're talking about just making 5% pa like we've seen recently, you can lose a lot of that through trading regularly.
Some – those not investing in share ISAs and pensions, mainly – take extra tax hits too, when they sell and buy more. Others even have a deliberate strategy of buying and selling very quickly, dozens or even hundreds of times per year. The cost of doing so makes it extraordinarily difficult not to lose money.
The fifth and final big reason for disappointing returns is paying too high costs as a result of not shopping around.
From the 90s until just recently, the costs of actively-managed funds have risen, on average. If you've been steered into more expensive funds by a fund management company, advert, or financial adviser, and not kept an eye on the costs, you're likely to have underperformed. The more expensive an investment fund is, the more likely it is to underperform by a greater margin. In investing, you don't get what you pay for.
Conversely, funds that track the stock market have come down in price over the years, as have the costs of the 'wrappers' – the pensions and Share ISAs that you buy the funds in. If you've not shopped around every few years to see if there's a cheaper tracker or wrapper, you might well have further lowered your returns.
Some of the figures I used for my calculations from 1999 to 2003 are less than exact due to the imprecise way I collected the data from FTSE, but they didn't have to be correct to the millimetre. They still demonstrate that regular investing in trackers would have seen you through this bad period just fine, albeit not with a very exciting finish.