In mid-May, the Dow Jones Industrial Average touched 40,000 for the first time in the index's 139-year history. And even though the Dow has since declined a bit, crossing a big round number always seems to lift investors' spirits.

More importantly, the blue-chip index's new record was a validation for investors who had kept their nerve and stayed in the market through the past few years. Think about how many market gurus were warning of recession and a bear market. As they always have, investors who are patient and who ignore scary headlines as well as euphoric ones tend to see gains in their portfolios over the long run.

And that's exactly why investors shouldn't be discouraged if the Dow and the stock market in general follow an up-and-down path for at least the next few months. It's very possible that the Dow specifically could move up and down in a range, fluctuating between, let's say, 38,000 and 40,000 without breaking out significantly above or below these levels.

The reason is that there's a lot of uncertainty now, specifically around inflation, interest rates and even the upcoming presidential election. But there's a good reason to stay invested in the market: A new bull market could start at any time. If you're on the sidelines when it begins, you could miss out on significant gains.

The 1982 bull market, for example, began after a stagnant period in the 1970s. And the 2009 bull market followed a sluggish phase after the 2008 financial crisis. Many investors missed significant portions of those rallies because they thought it wiser to stay out of the market until it was clear that sustainable gains were occurring. But correctly guessing the right times to jump in and out of the market is something that even professional investors fail at.

For instance, in 2023, 60% of all active large-cap U.S. equity funds underperformed the S&P 500 ( The reason: Rather than just holding on to stocks, they tried to outsmart the market by buying and selling at opportune times.

Yes it can be hard to stay the course when your portfolio is stagnant or falling in the short term. But buying into the market and staying invested really does work to your advantage over time. If you had bought an S&P 500 ETF at the market high that preceded the Covid crash of 2020, you'd still be up 57% today. The gains that investors make in stocks is critical in preserving or even growing the spending power of their money over time.

Yes, there's risk in owning stocks, but it's a tradeoff for the potential of long-term reward. In the stock market, time is your friend.

In case you haven't noticed, the stock market has been bumpy for the past couple of weeks, with the S&P 500 index recently down about 2% from its April 11 level. Investors are in a pessimistic mood and it's largely because the deep interest-rate cuts that the market expected early in the year just aren't materializing.

If interest rates stay high, there will still be opportunities to make money in the stock market—but investors would need to evaluate their holdings and potentially make some changes.

Here's how we got here. The Federal Reserve started raising rates in in March of 2022 as it became clear that high inflation was a problem that wasn't going to solve itself. By July of 2023 short-term interest rates had gone from close to 0% to over 5%. But while inflation has slowed, it rate of consumer price increases remains at 3.5%, higher than the Fed's 2% inflation target.

Now the market's interest-rate expectations have changed: Instead of the six quarter-point rate cuts this year, the consensus is three or even less. My opinion is that there's a 60% chance we don't see any rate cuts from the Fed this year.

If that's the way things play out, here are a few things to watch for. First, I think the housing market would continue to be in a funk. The average interest rate on a 30-year mortgage is 7.5%, the highest level in two decades. That's hitting demand for buyers of existing and new homes, which is weighing on companies that provide housing materials. When interest rates are high, that's generally a sector of the market to avoid, and it's part of why the economy in general could struggle in the next few months.

Another sector that is likely to be hit hard by a higher-for-longer environment is small-cap stocks. Smaller companies need to borrow capital to grow, and higher costs of capital push their profitability lower. Meanwhile, elevated inflation usually hits consumer-discretionary industries. Americans could rein in their vacation travel, for instance, hurting companies in related businesses.

Meanwhile, I'd be very careful and selective with corporate bonds in a high-rate environment. There are a lot of debt-laden companies out there, and with higher rates, the risk of default is greater than I think the market appreciates.

Where would opportunities be found in a continuing high-rate environment? A good place to look is companies that have low levels of debt, that are increasing their sales and that have the cash to purchase distressed companies. Some of the biggest and best-know technology companies have billions of dollars of cash available, and as small companies wrestle with high-interest debt, they can virtually pick and choose the ones they want to acquire.

As always, choosing the right mix of investments depends on your goals, your timeline and your comfort level with risk. Don't hesitate to get in touch with us if you'd like to discuss your investment portfolio.

Looking for an investing shortcut that will change your life? You've got plenty of company. Especially when we hear about things like hot stocks or genius fund managers or soaring cryptocurrencies, it's easy to get frustrated with the seemingly slow progress of a sensible, diversified portfolio.

But if you're trying to achieve long-term goals like being able to retire at a reasonable age, over-aggressive investing is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Yes, your investment portfolio might make a nice jump in the short term, but just like at a blackjack table in Las Vegas, big initial gains can blind us to the fact that big losses lie ahead. As Warren Buffett said, "The stock market is a device for transferring money from the impatient to the patient."

Successful investors invest based on the answers to three fundamental questions. None of those questions are "What's the hottest opportunity out there?" But the answers can form the basis of long-term financial success.

1. What are my investing goals? To be able to fund the important goals in your life, like retirement, education or financial freedom, you have to be able to define those goals and figure out their cost. Having that information allows you to determine how much you'll need to invest and the returns that you'll need to generate to meet your goals. And that's where time horizon comes in.

2. What is my time horizon? Time horizon refers to the length of time over which you plan to invest your money before needing to access it. The longer you have to invest, the better, because of the power of compounding. Compounding is when your returns earn returns, ultimately creating the snowball effect that prompted Einstein to call compounding "the eighth wonder of the world." The length of time your money has to compound is critical because it determines whether you'll be able to achieve your goals and how much risk you'll need to take to do so. Yes, it's true that you'll need to take risk to make money as an investor, but you should not take on more risk than you are comfortable with.

3. What is my risk tolerance? Risk tolerance refers to an investor's ability to withstand market fluctuations without panicking. Financial advisors help clients determine their risk tolerance by presenting hypothetical scenarios in which a portfolio declines. How much are you comfortable losing, on paper, during bad markets? It's important because panicky investors are tempted to pull their money out of the market at the worst time, locking in losses and sabotaging the likelihood of meeting their goals. The key to preventing that is to build a portfolio that, while still giving you the highest likelihood of a strong probability of achieving your goals, allows you to sleep at night in all market conditions.

It's critical not to approach investing as a get-rich-quick game. In almost all cases, the most successful investors are methodical, disciplined and patient. They ask the right questions and stay disciplined throughout the process. The opposite approach, cranking up the risk by chasing hot stocks or speculative stocks, can wind up seriously hampering your portfolio. It's a common reason why investors have had to push back their retirement dates, working several more years than they wanted to. And the older you are, the worse it is to have a gambler's mindset, because there's less time to recover losses.

As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson said: "Investing should be more like watching paint dry or watching grass grow. If you want excitement, take $800 and go to Las Vegas."

Tax-advantaged college-savings plans known as 529 plans have gotten very popular since their introduction in 1996. But while their tax benefits are attractive, a question has hung over them: What happens to the funds that aren't spent?

There's now a new answer to that question, and in my view it makes 529 plans a lot more attractive. Under the SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022, as much as $35,000 can be rolled from a 529 into a beneficiary's Roth IRA account. It's true that college costs continue to rise far faster than the general rate of inflation. But even so, it's not uncommon for beneficiaries to use only part of their 529 funds for college, graduate school or trade school.

They may get scholarships, may end up going to a less-expensive school than they'd planned, or might skip college altogether. However they wind up with leftover 529 funds, these beneficiaries can now use that money to jumpstart their retirement savings in a Roth IRA. By starting young, they can use the power of compounding over several decades to build a big chunk of what they'll need to retire.

Before the SECURE 2.0 Act, leftover 529 funds could be saved in case the beneficiary wound up with more education expenses, or could be transferred to a family member's 529 plan. Any other withdrawals of the money resulted in an income tax and a 10% federal tax on earnings. Now, 529-account owners or beneficiaries can roll $35,000 into a Roth IRA with the same beneficiary over their lifetime. The catch is that it has to be done in increments; the annual rollover limit is the same as the yearly IRA contribution limit. For 2024 it's $7,000. Starting at age 59 ½, principal and earnings in the Roth can be withdrawn tax-free.

Here's an example of how 529-plan money can be turned into retirement nest-egg money. Say a 529-plan beneficiary has $35,000 left if the account after completing their education. They start rolling $7,000 a year into a Roth. Assuming they earn 8% a year in the IRA, They'll have a total of $51,778.76 after five years in that account. Now let's say they're age 29 when that process ends, and that they intend to retire at age 65. That's 36 years of compounding, after which, at an 8% return, they've have $922,114.21 of tax-free retirement funds. The power of compounding over time would ensure the beneficiary winds up with nearly $1 million toward retirement.

As always, there are caveats. One big one is that the 529 account being rolled into a Roth IRA has to have been open for at least 15 years. Contributions made less than five years ago aren't eligible, and neither are their earnings. And remember that $7,000 is the total IRA contribution limit for this year, including whatever amount you move from a 529 to a Roth. So if you've contributed $2,000 to a Roth since the start of the year, your 529 rollover total for the year can only be $5,000.

The new rollover rules, and the age-old power of compounding make contributing to 529 plans a lot more attractive than they used to be. Please reach out to us if you'd like to learn more.

Investors often worry about poor stock returns during election years, and that's not surprising, given the idea that markets dislike uncertainty. But while election years are often volatile, the truth is that over the years has tended to be good.

Between 1937 and 2022, for example, the S&P 500 index has posted an average annual return of 9.9% during presidential election years. You can rest assured that emotions will be in full swing as the November election approaches. But where your investment portfolio is concerned, it's important to be calm and rational, to minimize your risk and be ready to seize opportunities.

In presidential election years, the market volatility tends to be front-loaded into the first half of the year. That's when candidates, campaigning in the primaries, tend to make extreme policy proposals. It doesn't matter that they'd likely never become law: The point is to appeal to voters on the far ends of the political spectrum who play an outsized role in selecting presidential candidates.

By the time the general-election campaign is in swing, the rhetoric has typically calmed down a bit, and markets start to gain some traction. Opportunities to invest will present themselves throughout the year.

But first, it's important to evaluate the risk in your portfolio. That's because the large-cap stocks that carried 2023's big returns, including the big rally at the end of the year, will likely cool off.

If you've owned any of the "Magnificent 7" stocks over the past year or two—Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, NVIDIA, Tesla and Meta Platforms—those stocks could be seriously overweighted in your portfolio right now. And given their inflated prices, they could do a nosedive during the periods of volatility and set you back significantly.

In my view, small- and mid-cap stocks are poised to have a strong year. They were largely overlooked last year, and broadly speaking they're priced attractively. Furthermore, smaller-cap stocks tend to benefit strongly from falling interest rates, and it's widely believed that the Federal Reserve is done raising rates and will start cutting them in 2024.

As for new investments, there's plenty of opportunity, and many companies could become more efficient and profitable thanks to the widening adoption of artificial intelligence. I believe AI could spur the next growth wave of corporate profits. As always, we want to wait for an attractive price before buying any stock. In the meantime, you might want to park your cash in three-months Treasury bills, which are currently yielding an attractive 5.45%.

Don't hesitate to reach out to us if you'd like to review the risk level of your investment portfolio and identify the stocks that could power your portfolio for the coming year.