"The accumulation of substantial personal wealth at retirement time will be a matter of choice open to almost all Americans at the start of the next millennium."
In other words, if you are relatively young today and don't become a millionaire by the time you retire, you have few excuses. Most likely, it's your own darn fault.
The unsettling quotation comes in the first sentence of a new book, Getting Rich in America, by two business management professors, Dwight R. Lee and Richard B. McKenzie, who also wrote the bestseller The Millionaire Next Door.
Past generations could blame their lack of financial success on the cruel vagaries of the marketplace, but if you believe Lee and McKenzie--and I do--becoming truly rich is now a matter of personal choice and responsibility.
Of course, nearly everyone wants to be rich. By "choice," the authors mean wise decision-making and personal restraint. They list eight rules for building a fortune. Five of them are beyond the scope of this column: "take care of yourself" (i.e., mind your health), "get married and stay married," etc. But the other three concern investing, and they make a lot of sense. The rules come down to this: The best way to get rich is to start setting aside money from your paycheck early and keep it invested for a long time. Picking the right stocks is not the secret to success. Instead, the key is what you do before and after you make your selections.
Specifically, these are the relevant rules:
* Take the power of compound interest seriously. Lee and McKenzie urge readers to invest persistently over a long period. Do that, and you can't help building a huge nest egg.
For example, say you save 10 percent of your income each year, beginning at age 22 with a salary of $30,000 that rises by 1 percent annually, and that your investments return a modest 8 percent after inflation.
Then, retiring at age 65, you'll have $1.2 million in today's dollars. Put that money into municipal bonds earning 5 percent, and you'll receive tax-free income of about $60,000 and still be able to pass the entire $1.2 million on to your heirs.
That starting salary and the proportion invested may be too aggressive. Assume, instead, that you invest $2,000 a year starting at 22. By 65, you'll have $714,000. Not bad, either.
* Resist temptation. In other words, put off current gratification for the sake of far greater gains in the future. The authors cite a scientific study of 4-year-old children who were each given a marshmallow and told, "You can eat this marshmallow as soon as you want, but if you wait and don't eat it until I return in a little while, then I will give you a second marshmallow."
Some kids ate the marshmallow; others waited until the second treat arrived. Years later, researchers looked at the academic performance of the two groups and found that the temptation-resisters scored 20 percent to 25 percent higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. They also were more confident and popular than the immediate-gratifiers.
The essence of investing is delaying rewards. The longer you keep your money at work, the more dramatic the effect of compounding. With rare exceptions, traders--who jump from one stock to another out of fear, uncertainty, nervousness or the desire for quick gains--are losers.
* Take prudent risks. That's a nice phrase. The best way to take such risks is by purchasing stocks.
Yes, stocks are very risky in the short term, but research shows clearly that they are no more risky than U.S. Treasury bonds in the long term. For that reason, you can leapfrog risks by buying a diversified portfolio of stocks and holding it for 10 years or more.
"We suggest that for most people the best investment strategy is to 'buy the market' by investing in mutual funds that buy a broad range of stocks," write Lee and McKenzie, who are big fans of index mutual funds that own all the stocks in the Standard & Poor's 500 or the broader Wilshire 5000. Another way to buy the market is through "Spyders," or Standard & Poor's Depositary Receipts (symbol: SPY), which represent the 500 stocks in the S&P and trade at roughly one-tenth the value of the index (currently about $138 per share) or "Diamonds" (DIA), which represent the 30 stocks in the Dow Jones industrial average and trade at roughly one one-hundredth the value of the Dow ($111 per share).
Of course, buying index funds isn't the only way to take prudent risks. Another is to buy stocks in sectors that are temporarily depressed or unappreciated--that is, value stocks.
One such sector is electric utility companies, which are undergoing deregulation. It's still hard to pick winners and losers, but some stocks have been unreasonably depressed. Babson-United Inc., a Wellesley Hills, Mass., investment firm, recently analyzed 64 utilities and recommended 15 for purchase.
Among them: Michigan-based CMS Energy Corp. (CMS); Duke Energy Corp. (DUK), the nation's largest; and Minnesota-based Northern States Power Co. (NSP).
Lately, value stocks--especially, small-caps--have represented even greater value than usual. If you don't have such stocks in your portfolio, this could be a great time to pick them up cheaply, although it means resisting the temptation of highfliers.
Two of my favorite value mavens are Samuel Mitchell and Christopher Niemczewksi of Marshfield Associates, a Washington money-management firm. In their latest newsletter, they paraphrase Mark Twain by writing that "we think reports of the death of value are exaggerated."
They simply do not believe that certain stocks will continue to sell indefinitely at prices "below a conservative, informed estimate of [their] business value." They cite "two examples of smaller-capitalization companies short on glamour but long on value"--Roper Industries Inc. (ROP) and W.R. Berkley Corp. (BKLY). Roper has three lines of business: fluid-handling products such as centrifugal pumps, industrial controls such as pressure-monitoring systems, and analytical instruments such as oil-testing equipment.
The company's managers have shown they know how to make sensible acquisitions and "operate companies producing highly engineered, high value-added products in niche markets," according to Mitchell and Niemczewski, who bought the stock at a good price (a price-to-earnings ratio, or P/E, of 13) because earnings were soft, as the result of weakness in two key markets for the firm--oil and semiconductors. But, even after a 30 percent run-up since February, Roper still appears attractive. It's a good example of the bargains that are out there, especially in manufacturing.
Berkley is a property and casualty insurer that was trading at $26.62 1/2 on Friday but that Marshfield believes is "worth at least $45." (It hit $49.88 last year.) The stock is cheap now because of "a brutally competitive pricing environment [for insurance] and unusually severe weather-related losses in the upper Midwest."
But Mitchell and Niemczewski believe "the market has overreacted to temporarily adverse conditions" and Berkley can overcome its problems. The stock is paying a dividend of 52 cents, for a yield of 1.9 percent, which is half-again as high as the typical S&P stock.
"Management," according to the Marshfield analysts, "is highly competent, smart, honest with itself, and highly motivated to improve returns." Those sound like the same qualities that Lee and McKenzie seek in potential millionaires.
Their Basic Eight In "Getting Rich in America: 8 Simple Rules for Building a Fortune and a Satisfying Life," authors Dwight R. Lee and Richard B. McKenzie recommend:
1. Think of America as the land of choices.
2. Take the power of compound interest seriously -- and then save.
3. Resist temptation of the moment to achieve your long-run goals through saving and investment.
4. Get a good education.
5. Get married and stay married.
6. Take care of yourself -- your health is important.
7. Take prudent risks.
8. Strive for balance.
James K. Glassman is a resident fellow at AEI.