If I asked a crowd what was the absolute worst time to start investing over the last few decades, no doubt the most common answer would be at the top of the dot-com bubble. Everyone knows the story. The tech-heavy NASDAQ peaked in March 2000 above 5,000, and it took another 14 agonizing years before the NASDAQ returned to those highs. In the meantime, the Nasdaq plunged more than 70% from those heady highs.
So exactly how bad would it be to start investing at the peak of the dot-com bubble? Let’s find out. For this exercise, we recruited Bad Luck Brian. In 2000, he graduated from college with an engineering degree and landed his first real job in March 2000. Following the advice of everyone around him, he started investing in the tech-heavy Nasdaq. He told human resources to take $500 out each month and put it into a zero-cost Nasdaq index fund.
And true to his name, Bad Luck Brian promptly forgot about his recurring investments in tech stocks. While the smart people were pulling out of their investments during the bloody tech collapse and subsequent recession, Brian continued throwing $500 away every month. He was buying the Nasdaq as it tumbled -10%, -20%, -30%, -40%, -50%, -60% and he even bought when the selling climaxed at -70%. What an idiot, right?
So given how unlucky Brian is, how horribly awful did his investment turn out? The attached chart shows his returns versus the Nasdaq. As expected, the first few years were terrible. Brian lost more than 40% his principle in those early years. But even then something strange was happening. Even though the Nasdaq kept falling, Brian’s losses were consistently smaller than the Nasdaq’s. When the index was 70% under the highs, Brian was only down 40%. While no one wants to be down 40%, that is definitely better than -70%.
And the outperformance didn’t stop there. Believe it or not, Brian’s account actually reached break-even in November of 2003, more than a decade before the Nasdaq could do the same. How could this be?
No doubt many of you already realized why Brian’s account was performing so much better than the Nasdaq. That’s because he kept buying the dip. With every paycheck, he stuck more money into the market. And the further the Nasdaq fell, the more stock Brian was buying.
If we assume one share of the Nasdaq fund cost 1/10th of the index value, with his first $500 in March of 2000, Brian bought approximately 10 shares. But the next March after the index collapses 55%, Brian’s $500 bought more than 20 shares. In fact, the Nasdaq fell so far that at one point Brian’s $500 was buying nearly 40 shares a month!
And lucky for Brian, he kept buying those discounted Nasdaq shares for more than a decade. Accumulating 20 and 30 shares per month started paying off handsomely when the index finally climbed out of its hole. By the time the Nasdaq recovered to the old highs in 2015, Brian had been able to buy so many shares at a discount that his $93,000 of invested principle was worth $204,000! The index was flat, but amazingly Brian was up 120%!
And it didn’t stop there. Brian kept plugging away and just a few years later, Brian’s $500 per month in 2018 is now worth more than $300,000! Not bad for someone who started investing at the worst time imaginable.
What can we learn from Bad Luck Brian’s? Instead of fearing dips, we should embrace them. Rather than pull back on our contributions, we should double them.
Currently, the stock market is down 15% from the highs and people are running around scared. While they are afraid prices could fall even further, I’m over here wishing we could be that lucky. Bring on those cheap stocks!
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Jani Ziedins (pronounced Ya-nee) is a full-time investor and writer who has successfully traded stocks and options for more than a decade. He earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and an MBA and M.S. Marketing from the University of Colorado Denver. His prior professional experience includes manufacturing engineering at Fortune 500 companies, structural engineering, small business consultant, collegiate instructor, and managing investment real estate. He is now fortunate enough to trade full-time from home, affording him the luxury of spending extra time with his wife and two young children.