Three Resolutions for a Profitable New Year

It’s coming.

Or, I should say, “he’s” coming.

Warren Buffett? No.

Bill Gross? No.

I am referring to Dick Clark.

He’s on his way. He will be hosting, again, the annual ball-drop on Times Square — for the 435th year — in just a few short weeks.

And you know what that means.

It’s time to set some New Year’s resolutions.

From an investment standpoint — the “macro” view — I always find myself wondering the degree to which these annual promises are harmful to companies like cigarette maker Altria (NYSE: MO), booze purveyor Diageo (NYSE: DEO) and houses of goodness and calories like Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) or Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO). Happily, most New Year’s resolutions are resolutely abandoned until Lent, and any promises made then last only six weeks, hardly enough time to scuttle any fragile recovery that has emerged.

The other investment perspective, the micro, that is, “you,” introduces several other resolution possibilities. Will this be the year you finally learn to read a balance sheet? The annum in which you actually read those proxy statements and vote in shareholder elections? The year in which you decide to seek the best returns possible and subscribe to my Government-Driven Investing newsletter?

Shameless, I know. Just shameless.

Here are three other suggestions that you might want to consider. All are relatively painless. All will help you build your portfolio.

One: Resolve to invest in small amounts.

I’ve been meaning to write a piece about how procrastination is the biggest sin among investors, but I haven’t gotten around to it. [Pause for laughter.]

But it’s true. Far too many investors wait until they have enough money to invest. That’s like waiting until you have enough money to have children. No matter how much you have, it will never be enough.

And yet it is possible, cost-effective and even easy to invest modest sums. The easiest way to do this is through dividend reinvestment or direct stock purchase plans. These plans, sponsored by the companies themselves and administered by the transfer agent charged with looking after the company’s ownership, carry extremely low fees and allow participants to invest as little as $50 at a time. Most public companies make these plans available.

There are two ways to use them.

The first is to allocate a recurring monthly withdrawal from a checking account. On a given day each month, the plan scoops a set amount from your checking account and uses it to buy shares of stock. (Sometimes fractions of shares, so all of your money is put to use.) This method of investing is called dollar-cost averaging. The idea is that you buy throughout the year, buying some shares at a low price and others at a slightly higher price. This reduces the risk that you will mistime the market and buy at the wrong moment.

The other way to use these plans is to open the account with the small required investment, typically about $250, sometimes lower, sometimes higher, and then wait to buy until the shares hit your target price. When they do, you invest the money you have ostensibly been setting aside each month. If it rises above your buy price, you let your shares sit and wait to buy additional stock when favorable circumstances present themselves.

Either way, a direct stock purchase plan or dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP) is a long-term investment of the tortoise school. If you agree that slow and steady wins the race, then this might be a good resolution for you to consider. (The DRIP strategy has certainly paid off for my boss Paul Tracy. He’s now pulling in about $85 a day in dividends alone — well on his way to $100 a day. See what other “daily paycheck” tricks he’s using to get there.) You can check out a variety of these plans at and at Bank of New York-Mellon.

Two: Resolve to take profits.

My friend and StreetAuthority colleague Amy Calistri started playing poker to improve her sell-side discipline. In other words, she picked up the game to learn when to fold ’em. (She became one of the best poker writers in the business in the process and has, in fact, just published a book about one of her big-winning cronies.)

Now, I’m not necessarily suggesting you need to take up poker like Amy did, but learning how to deal with losses is the critical difference between a good investor and a great investor. It’s also the difference between a rich investor and a poor one.

In the upcoming year, resolve to invest with the words of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” in mind: “Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” To that end, you need to develop a mental strategy for victory and an exit plan in case of defeat. Wise investors set price targets and sell stocks that hit them. They take profits off the table and reallocate them to the next opportunity. Rinse and repeat.

On the flip side, smart traders don’t hang onto losers because they’re too proud or afraid to admit a mistake. Don’t marry your stocks and vow to be faithful for richer or poorer. That’s a great way to run a marriage but a lousy way to manage a portfolio. If your stocks hit your sell price, then get rid of them. Simple as that. Then deal yourself another hand.

This year, don’t buy any stock with an indefinite future. Knowing where you’re going is the surest way to get there.

Three: Resolve to rebalance your portfolio.

Investors who survived the collapse in 2008 have seen some of their wealth return in 2009. That doesn’t mean, however, that their portfolios are in good shape.

As 2010 dawns, resolve to take a serious look at your holdings with an eye toward your risk tolerance and your time horizon. Are you overweight growth-oriented equities and short income-producing stocks? Should you be oriented toward aggressive growth to the degree that you are? Where will your portfolio be in five years given its current makeup?

It’s worthwhile to seek diversity across a number of industries and to further manage your risk by allocating assets to different geographic regions. Most investors are far too concentrated in dollars. Most investors are far too heavily allocated to equities.

The good news is that these are easy fixes. Foreign markets and corporate bonds are more accessible and easier to invest in than ever before using exchange-traded funds. (You can always stay up to date on the ETF space by checking out the research from Nathan Slaughter, the editor of diversification, and at far lower cost than other alternatives, like mutual funds.

As the end of the year approaches, investments may be the last thing on your mind while you juggle holiday commitments. Once the calendar turns over to the New Year, indeed, to the new decade, promise yourself that you will resolve to have a profitable 2010. Best of luck.