6 Dangerous Moves For First-Time Investors
By Andrew Beattie

Thanks to online discount brokerages, anyone with an Internet connection and a bank account can be up and trading stocks within a week. This ease of access is great because it encourages more people to explore investing for themselves, rather than depending on mutual funds or money managers. However, there are some common mistakes that first time investors have to be aware of before they try picking stocks like Buffett or shorting like Soros. (To learn more, see Billionaire Portfolios: What Are They Hiding?)

TUTORIAL: 20 Investments To Know

Jumping In Head First

The basics of investing are quite simple in theory buy low and sell high. In practice, however, you have to know what is low and what is high in a market where everything hinges on different readings of a variety of ratios and metrics. What is high to the seller is considered low (enough) to the buyer in any transaction, so you can see how different conclusions can be drawn from the same market information. Because of the relative nature of the market, it is important to study up a bit before jumping in. (To learn more, see Stochastics: An Accurate Buy And Sell Indicator.)

At the very least, know the basic metrics such as book value, dividend yield, price-earnings ratio (P/E) and so on, and understand how they are calculated and where their major weaknesses lie. While you are learning, you can see how your conclusions work out by using virtual money in a stock simulator. Most likely, you'll find that the market is much more complex than a few ratios can express, but learning those and testing them on a demo account can help lead you to the next level of study. (Watching metrics like book value and P/E are crucial to value investing. Get acquainted with 5 Must-Have Metrics for Value Investing.)

Playing Penny Stocks

At first glance, penny stocks seem like a great idea. With as little as $100, you can get a lot more shares in a penny stock than a blue chip that might cost $50 a share. And, if the two blue chip shares you bought went up $1 you'd only make $2, whereas if 100 shares of a $1 stock went up a $1 you would double your money. Unfortunately, what penny stocks offer in position size and potential profitability has to measure against the volatility that they face. Penny stocks can shoot up. It happens all the time - but they can also crash in moments, and are exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation and illiquidity. Getting solid information on penny stocks can also be difficult, making them a poor choice for an investor who is still learning. (To learn more, read The Lowdown On Penny Stocks.)

Going All In with One Investment

Investing 100% of your capital in a specific market, whether it is the stock market, commodity futures, forex or even bonds is not a good move. Although you may eventually decide to throw diversification to the wind and put all your available capital into these markets once you are familiar with them, it is better to risk a little bit of capital at a time. This way, the lessons learned along the way are less costly, but still valuable. (Diversification entails calculating correlation, learn more about it by reading Diversification: Protecting Portfolios From Mass Destruction.)

Leveraging Up

Leveraging your money by using a margin is similar to going all in, but much more damaging. Using leverage magnifies both the gains and the losses on a given investment. Some forms of leverage, such as options, have a limited downside or can be controlled by using specific market orders, as in forex. Learning to control the amount of capital at risk comes with practice, and until an investor learns that control, leverage is best taken in small doses (if at all). (Read more with Leverage's "Double-Edged Sword" Need Not Cut Deep.)

Investing Cash Reserves

Studies have shown that cash put into the market in bulk rather than incrementally has a better overall return, but this doesn't mean you should invest to the point of illiquidity. Investing is a long-term business whether you are a buy-and-hold investor or a trader, and staying in business requires having cash on the sidelines for emergencies and opportunities. Sure, cash on the sidelines doesn't earn any returns, but having all your cash in the market is a risk that even professional investors won't take. If you only have enough cash to invest or have an emergency cash reserve, then you're not in a position financially where investing makes sense. (To learn more about liquidity's importance, read Understanding Financial Liquidity.)

Chasing News

Trying to guess what will be the next "Apple," a revolutionary produce or a rumor of earth shaking earnings, investing on news is a terrible move for first time investors. The best case scenario is that you get lucky, and then keep doing it until your luck fails. The worst case scenario is that you get stuck jumping in late (or investing on the wrong rumor) time and time again before you give up on investing. Rather than following rumors, the ideal first investments are in companies you understand and have a personal experience dealing with. This connection makes it easier to stomach the time and research that investing demands. (For more on the psychology of trading, read
How The Power Of The Masses Drives The Market.)

The Bottom Line

When you are starting to invest, it is best to start small and take the risks with money you are prepared to lose. As you gain confidence and become more adept at evaluating stocks and reading the market sentiment, you can start making bigger investments. None of these investments are bad in and of themselves, but they do tend to be very unforgiving towards rookie mistakes. Leverage, penny stocks, news trading, etc. can all become part of your investing strategy as you learn, should you choose it. The trick is learning to invest in more stable markets before you jump into the wilder areas.