Young Canadian Investor #14 – The Downsides of Stock Picking or Active Management

by trevorpantera3112

If you’ve ever thought it’d be a good idea to pick your own stocks, as opposed to investing in broad index funds, I’m here to dissuade you.


Illustration by Udo Keppler.

  1. For one, if you invest in a fund that tracks the global stock market, it’ll never go to 0 unless the world ends. If you buy $1000 worth of shares in a single company you believe in, on the other hand, it could fall on hard times, causing the share price to plummet, and with it your ownership stake.
  2. The only way stock picking can work out is if you treat the endeavor like index investing, by which I mean owning stakes in a diversified group of businesses and holding them for decades. To follow through here, your research needs to support the long-term success of these businesses in spite of temporary drops in prices per share. It’s common for great investments to drop by 50% or more on their way to paying off for you. Will you be able to keep your convictions and hold on, or will you cave at the first whiff of trouble, make up an excuse, and panic sell at a low price like most self-directed investors? What makes you so sure that the investments that have caught your eye aren’t just the latest overpriced fads everyone and their grandmothers are joining the herd to own?
  3. To produce high-quality research, you need to take the time to learn how to evaluate a business as it stands to make a judgement about its future prospects. If you’re interested in building up savings over the long term so you can live with dignity through your golden years, this is not something you can do casually when the fancy arises. You’ll have to immerse yourself in the intricacies of balance sheets, income statements, cash flow statements, and quarterly and annual reports at a minimum to give yourself a chance.
  4. As an active investor trying to earn returns above the global stock market as a whole, or at the very least your national stock market, history is decidedly against you. Over 10 years, you’re looking at about a 20% success rate among professionals, with the percentage dwindling the farther out in time you go. Compare this to participating in your national stock market by owning an index fund that tracks it, which will provide you with that market’s return year in and year out minus a very small fee.
  5. Speaking of fees, one of the hardest parts about making active investing profitable is keeping commissions under control. You usually pay $5-$10 per transaction when buying or selling stocks, while index funds can be bought on Questrade for free.
  6. It’s also important to realize that, if you buy individual stocks in your RRSP or TFSA and they permanently tank, you can’t get that contribution room back. It might be hard to feel strongly about the benefits of accounts where investments can grow tax-free, especially if you’re young and justifiably all about the now, but it’s basically free money. You’d be doing your future self a huge disservice by letting it go to waste.

Still feel like building wealth by buying shares in individual companies? It’s not that it’s impossible to do well for yourself in this way. There are plenty of examples out there of people who dedicate their lives to investing through in-depth research and make a decent living off gains, as opposed to investment management fees they’re paid whether or not they produce satisfactory returns for their clients. If you’re consumed by your passion for picking stocks, by all means, have at it. But if you’re not, I wish you more than luck.

If you’re interested in learning how to invest through index funds and you’re looking for a concise guide to see you through the process—from establishing financial goals, to opening an RRSP or TFSA, to purchasing your investments and caring for them year to year—you’ll likely find my new book to be of service. It’s called Nine Steps to Successful Investing: A Guide for Young Canadians. It uses plain language, and draws from some of Canada’s leading voices in personal finance, to set you up with the fundamentals you need to grow your money as a self-directed investor.

I’m also available to teach you 1-on-1 over Zoom if you prefer.

Feel free to drop your questions in the comments.

Disclaimer: This article is meant for general education purposes only. It does not constitute financial advice as I am unaware of your personal situation. Consult with a professional who abides by a fiduciary standard before making any investment decisions.