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How to Invest Like a Rich Person

Optimism is the key to getting higher returns on your money

By Paul Merriman | MarketWatch | August 21, 2014

From time to time over the years I’ve been invited to talk to high-school students about financial matters. I always enjoy this opportunity to learn from them and — I hope — teach them some important things.

One question I often ask is:

“Would you rather invest like a rich person or a poor person?”

How Rich and Poor People Invest

Of course they always choose the first option.

I use this question to introduce a couple of important concepts: Mutual funds versus individual stocks and index funds versus actively-managed ones.

(MORE: Flying Blind Investing for Retirement)

High-school students, most of whom have little or no exposure to investments, have no trouble comprehending that a wealthy investor will own thousands of stocks, while a poor one might own only a few.

My point: Buy a handful of individual stocks and you will be following the poor person's example. On the other hand, if you buy mutual funds — especially index funds — you will be investing like the rich investor.

A Deep Divide

As it turns out, the divide between poor investors and rich ones is deeper than I had thought.

A recent article published at TheWeek.com summed it up this way: “Rich people prefer productive companies while the poor prefer shiny lumps of metal. That's bad news.”

The article was based on a Gallup poll that found upper-income Americans are most likely to gravitate to stocks and real estate (and 87 percent of them own their own homes), while those in households with $30,000 or less annual income are more likely to choose gold as the best long-term investment. (Only 18 percent of wealthy Americans made that choice.)

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There's plenty of data from the past 200 years to support wealthy Americans' choice of stocks and real estate. I don't have to bore you with the reminder that, over time, stocks have far outstripped bonds, metals and other commodities, bonds, cash and real estate.

Public companies often pay dividends and grow by producing things that people want, while gold just sits idle waiting for somebody who's willing to pay more for it than the last investor.

Barry Ritholtz , a columnist at BloombergView, noted that the study indicates lower-income people and higher-income people seem to have quite different expectations from life. Consequently, the two groups place their trust in different places.

Optimists Versus Pessimists

Even though lots of high-income people remain wary of stocks and real estate because of the 2008 debacle, by and large there's a big difference in attitudes between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy.

(MORE: Pessimism Is Hazardous to Your Health)

Investing in real estate requires more than the ability to make a down payment and pay the mortgage. It requires faith in the legitimacy of property laws and the legal system. It requires faith that your property won't be taken from you illegally.

Likewise, when you invest in stocks you need faith that the country's financial system and economy will continue to function so that productive uses of capital are rewarded.

Stated another way, when you invest in stocks and real estate, you are being an optimist.

But as Ritholtz sees it, when you invest in gold you are more of a pessimist: “Gold is more or less portable; it often can be traded extralegally. It is a disaster currency that will have value even in a Mad Max era when society breaks down. Gold reflects a hedge against the potential collapse of the existing order.”

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

In other words, even though gold is seen by many people as a glamorous commodity associated with wealth, it is actually an investment for pessimists.

Obviously, well-to-do individuals are more likely to have confidence in the system than those who struggle to get by.

Perhaps not quite so obviously, people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder are less likely to know and understand the rudiments of what it takes to be a successful investor.

If this analysis is valid, and I think it has much merit, your investment success depends on your attitude, your outlook and your knowledge — or lack of it — about stocks, bonds, gold, real estate and the like.

This isn't particularly good news for lower-income investors. Much of the great improvement in humankind's standard of living over the past 200 years has come from people's ability to initiate and exploit technological and social progress.

Wealthy investors — optimists — are those who tend to bet that progress will continue. Betting against that progress by investing in gold is essentially swimming upstream.

Have a Little Faith

So what does all this mean?

An essential prerequisite for long-term investment success is faith in the future, which could be another way of saying optimism. Lower-income investors may believe, based on their own lives, that pessimism is much more sensible than optimism. There's no direct way that I know of to change that.

However, this gloomy outlook can be offset to some extent when low-income people are given the basics of financial education. Armed with the knowledge of how investing works, at least some lower-income investors will find ways to invest as if they were optimistic — even when they may still have their doubts.

Unfortunately, many individuals and companies in the investment business are far too willing to sell investors whatever they will buy. Until this changes — and I’m not holding my breath — the best we can do is try to learn from all the empirical evidence about which asset classes are most likely to be productive.

In addition, we can — and should — examine our attitudes every so often. Pessimism is always tempting, because it lets us blame others and blame “the system” that sometimes seems stacked against us.

But pessimism, as we have seen, can cost us dearly in the long run.

Here is my advice in a nutshell: Trust the future while you watch your back.

The best preparation for doing that is to learn as much as you can and put it into practice with whatever resources you have.

Paul Merriman is founder of Merriman Wealth Management, a Seattle-based investment advisory firm, and president of The Merriman Financial Education Foundation. Paul writes a weekly column for MarketWatch's The RetireMentors and records a weekly podcast, Sound InvestingHe has authored numerous books on investing including Financial Fitness Forever, Live It Up Without Outliving Your Money and the new How To Invest series available for free at PaulMerriman.com. Follow Paul on Twitter @SavvyInvestorPM.  Richard Buck contributed to this article.