Stock Market Investing – Where Do You Start?

I’ve been at the investment game for a while now and I’ve reached the stage where I prefer to invest in the stock market via individual stocks rather than collective investment vehicles like unit or investment trusts. The main reason for this is that I’d prefer not to pay other people to do something that I know I can do better myself.Of course, it wasn’t always this way. It’s taken me a quarter of a century of experience playing the markets to evolve my own profitable investment strategy. When I first started out though, like most people, I didn’t have the confidence to take my own decisions. More important than that, I didn’t have a large lump sum to play with in order to diversify my holdings sufficiently and build in a measure of safety. I suspect that’s the position that most newcomers to the world of investing find themselves in.So I’m not ashamed to admit that my first foray into the markets all those years ago was through one of the regular savings schemes run by the big investment trusts. Twenty-five years on I’d have to say that if I were just starting out on my investment journey now, I’d do exactly the same thing.Why Investment Trusts?Note that I chose investment trusts, not unit trusts. Although these two investment vehicles both allow investors to access a diversified portfolio of stocks with relatively small amounts of money, in my view, investment trusts have three clear advantages over their unit trust rivals:1. Their management charges are lower.2. Their long term performance is generally far better.3. They can often be bought at a discount to their net asset value.So if you’re now scratching your head and wondering why, despite all these advantages, you’ve never heard of investment trusts, you’re in very good company. Although things are slowly changing, investment trusts remain a closed book to most investors because, unlike their unit trust cousins, they don’t pay commission to financial advisors. As a result, they’re virtually ignored by the financial press. Let’s face it, high commissions equal high advertising budgets and since the Sunday papers rely on advertising to boost sales, they’ll happily provide favourable coverage in their money supplements to products promoted by high-spending advertisers. That sounds like a nice cosy relationship between the big investment houses and the financial media, but it leaves the small investor out in the cold as usual – deprived of information about one of today’s best-kept investment secrets. Hopefully, I’m about to help change all that.If I’ve convinced you that investment trusts are worth investigating further, and you’re ready to put your foot on that first rung of the investment ladder, then I’ve dug out a few options below which I believe would make ideal solutions for first-time investors like you. I’ve selected a range of vintage trusts with impeccable pedigrees from the broad global growth sector. These trusts offer a very low-cost way to access a broad, globally diversified portfolio. Rest assured that they all offer a regular monthly savings option for investors of more modest means:Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust 1. First up is a trust that was my first choice when I started investing a quarter of a century ago and it’s still going strong. It’s the Foreign and Colonial Investment Trust, it allows minimum monthly savings of £50 per month and it’s currently trading at a discount of 9.6% to net assets – which means that for every £90.40 invested, you’re getting £100 worth of shares. Now these discounts can fluctuate a bit. It may be that next month the discount widens to 11% or 12% – which simply means that if you’re a regular monthly investor, you get even more discounted shares for your money. Alternatively, the discount could narrow or even slip over into a premium as sometimes happens if a trust is particularly popular with investors – thus giving your investments a boost if you bought at a discount. Over the long term, however, whether you’re a lump sum investor or a regular saver, it would be hard to go wrong with this trust as, over the last 3 years, your investment would have increased by 52.7% – not bad, although past returns are no guarantee of a similar performance in future.Witan 2. An alternative to the Foreign and Colonial Trust, but one which does virtually the same job, is a trust called Witan. It’s performed even better than the Foreign and Colonial Trust with a return of 64.2% to investors over the last 3 years. It’s also slightly cheaper, trading at a 10.14% discount to NAV (Net Asset Value). On paper then, a slightly better bet. Again, you can start saving from just £50 per month.SAINTS 3. Finally, you could take a look at another old and well established stalwart, this time from the global growth and income category, and that’s SAINTS, or the Scottish American Investment Trust. This too allows minimum monthly investments of £50 per month through its parent company, Baillie Gifford, and has performed outstandingly over the last 3 years, returning 107.6% to its lucky investors. The downside is that this performance didn’t go unnoticed and the trust now stands at a premium to net assets of 4.1%. If you’re looking for income though, this trust currently yields over 4%, so not a bad alternative to a building society provided you’re prepared to risk your capital.Whichever option you choose, provided you’re in the markets for the long term, as you should be if you want to make decent returns, I think it would be very difficult to lose money with any of these trusts. That’s doubly true if you’re making regular monthly investments as you get the advantage of pound cost averaging, which means you buy more shares when prices dip, thus increasing your returns when shares subsequently rise. A few years down the line, once you feel you’ve accumulated enough in these well-diversified, low cost trusts, you can start dabbling in individual shares like I did.So if you were thinking of dipping a toe in today’s rather choppy investment waters, but either don’t yet have a large enough lump sum, or are too scared to dive in and commit it right now, then I don’t think you can do worse than follow my example: play it safe and set up an investment trust monthly savings scheme.Until Next Time, Happy InvestingJohn Mac, The Hands-On Investor.

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