What is “long-term investing” anyway?

Dear Mr. Market:th-19

Why is the number 15 important for us to share with you today? In our opinion it’s because everyone seems to have a different idea of what “long-term” investing means. The notion that investors should think long-term is fine, and fairly generic advice, but that time frame has never been concretely defined; until now!
My Portfolio Guide defines long-term as being able to invest for at least a 15 year time horizon.
Using our definition even at retirement you could definitely be considered a “long-term investor”. Granted, you may be closer to needing to live on a fixed income or simply not have the stomach for the ups and downs of the stock market, but by our definition you are a long-term investor.
The average person is living longer so if you hung up the work boots at age 65, for example, going out 15 years puts you at age 80. Assuming you need investment funds to last at least to that age it would be wise to have a decent portion allocated towards growth investments. Putting your investments into bonds, CDs, or cash is a losing proposition once you factor in taxes and the silent and ever-growing killer of inflation.
 
168036_600Look…we get it…the stock market can make you lose your lunch. The roller coaster analogies are plentiful and with a 24/7 news cycle it seems like the slightest hiccup can create a bloodbath on Wall Street.  All that being said, the odds of the stock market being positive over time are overwhelmingly in your favor and it’s still the place to be if you want to grow your wealth. Over one-year periods, between 1926 and 1997, Ibbotson found that stock returns were positive in 52 out of 72 years, or roughly three-quarters of the time. Even so there is obvious risk and volatility with the best year having stocks return +54% and in the worst -43%.
 
But now let’s turn to longer periods. Ibbotson looked at five-year rolling cycles over the same era (1926-30, 1927-31, etc.). Out of 68 separate, overlapping periods, stock returns were positive 61 times which works out to be almost 90% of the time! Over 15-year rolling periods (there were 58 of them) stock returns were positive every time.
Since 1926, the stock market – as measured by the S&P 500 with dividends reinvested, has never had a 15-year rolling calendar period with a loss. If that fact doesn’t register…please read it again. Never once in history has the stock market lost money over a 15 year period. The longer your time horizon the more likely it is that you’ll make money in a diversified stock portfolio. 
One of the reasons financial advisors use other instruments in a portfolio outside of stocks is to diversify; that is also a nice way of saying it’s because they know you will likely be an emotional train wreck when volatility enters the arena. If there was a two horse race and we had to bank our entire livelihood on either the Bond horse or the Stock horse…it is without question which we would choose.
Furthermore, imagine if you could only open your investment account statements once every 15 years? Not only would you most likely be a less stressed and more successful investor, but the odds are substantial that you would have positive returns no matter what happened in the world.

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