In 1973, Burton Malkiel published A Random Walk Down Wall Street, in which he argued that a blindfolded monkey could pick stocks as well as a professional investor. Though I bought a copy of Random Walk for $3.99 at the local Goodwill last year, I haven’t read it. It looks dense. I know it’s written for the layman, but it still seems rather academic.

In 2003, Malkiel published The Random Walk Guide to Investing, “a book of less than 200 pages in length that boils down the time-tested advice from Random Walk into an investment guide that [is] completely accessible for a reader who knows nothing about the securities markets and who hates numbers.”

Several patient GRS-readers have been recommending this book for the past year. When I stayed home sick yesterday, I finally found time to read it. I’m impressed. Malkiel has produced an easy-to-read straightforward investment guide that I’m happy to recommend to anyone. His philosophy matches my own:

The advice in this book is both simple and realistic. There is no magic potion in the investment world because the truth is that one doesn’t exist. There is no quick road to riches. And if someone promises you a path to overnight riches, cover your ears and close your pocketbook. If an investment idea seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. What I offer are ten simple, time-tested rules that can build wealth and provide retirement security. Think of the rules as the proven way to get rich slowly.

Malkiel’s rules are familiar. We’ve discussed most of them here before:

  1. Start saving now, not later. Don’t worry about whether the market is high or low — just begin investing. “Trust in time rather than timing,” Malkiel writes. “The secret to getting rich slowly (but surely) is the miracle of compound interest.”
  2. Keep a steady course. “The most important driver in the growth of your assets is how much you save,” writs Malkiel, “and saving requires discipline.” To develop discipline, the author recommends that you learn to pay yourself first (invest before anything else, even paying bills), implement a budget, change spending habits, and pay off debt.
  3. Don’t be caught empty-handed. Malkiel recommends that readers open an emergency fund. He doesn’t specify how much should be set aside, but he does cover a variety of places to put the cash: money market accounts, certificates of deposit, and online savings accounts. He also recommends purchasing term life insurance.
  4. Stiff the tax collector. Make the most of tax-advantaged savings: Open an Individual Retirement Account, contribute to your company’s retirement plan, take advantage of tax-free savings for your child’s education, buy your home rather than rent. All of these things help to reduce the bite that taxes take out of your money.
  5. Match your asset mix to your investment personality. Based on your risk tolerance and your investment horizon, choose the best mix of cash, bonds, stocks, and real estate. (Malkiel encourages investors to buy each of these through mutual funds.)
  6. Never forget that diversity reduces adversity. Don’t just buy stocks — buy stocks, bonds, and other investments classes. Within each category, diversify further. And don’t just buy one stock — buy mutual funds of many stocks. (Malkiel makes his case with the stark example of a 58-year-old Enron employee who had a $2.5 million 401k — of Enron stock. When Enron went bust, the employee not only lost her job, but her retirement savings vanished completely.) Finally, the author recommends “diversification over time” — making investments at regular intervals using dollar-cost averaging.
  7. Pay yourself, not the piper. Interest and fees are drags on your wealth. “Paying off credit card debt is the best investment you will ever make.” Avoid expensive mutual funds. “The only factor reliably linked to future mutual fund performance is the expense ratio charged by the fund.” In fact, the author advises that costs matter for all financial products.
  8. Bow to the wisdom of the market. “No one can time the market,” Malkiel says. It’s too unpredictable. Professional money managers can’t beat the market, financial magazines can’t beat the market — nobody can beat the market on a regular basis. The best way to earn consistent gains is to invest in broad-based index funds. It’s boring, but it works.
  9. Back proven winners. After Malkiel has preached the virtues of index funds, presumably converting the reader to his religion, he spends a chapter suggesting possible index funds and asset allocations.
  10. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Malkiel concludes by admonishing readers to stay the course, warning them against faulty thinking. He discusses the sort of money mistakes I’ve mentioned before: overconfidence, herd behavior, loss aversion, and the sunk-cost fallacy.

Ultimately, Malkiel’s advice can be stated in a few short sentences: Eliminate debt. Establish an emergency fund. Begin making regular investments to a diversified portfolio of index funds. Be patient. But the simplicity of his message does not detract from its value. The Random Walk Guide to Investing is an excellent book because it sticks to the basics:

  • It’s short.
  • It’s written in plain English — there’s no jargon.
  • It’s easy to understand — concepts are simplified so the average person can grasp them.
  • It’s filled with great advice.

This book refers often to other books to bolster its arguments, and includes quotes from financial professionals like John Bogle and Warren Buffett. Though the advice may seem elementary, it’s advice that works. If you want to invest but don’t know where to start, pick up The Random Walk Guide to Investing at your local library.