Is a Paper Portfolio a Waste of Time?

LONDON -- I received an email the other day from someone telling me he'd done well with a paper portfolio.

The would-be investor had "virtually" bought into a few of the shares I've previously written about. Specifically, he had hypothetically bought into my idea of defensive shares across sectors in a "baked beans and shotguns" portfolio.

On this basis, since late last November, he'd made an overall paper gain of 19% including dividends paid. This almost doubled the FTSE 100's (INDEX: ^FTSE) performance over the same period of plus10%.

He acknowledged that the results were somewhat flattered by the takeover of Robert Wiseman Dairies. But during a time when the FTSE has done very well, these six boring defensive shares have done even better. And they've still done a little better than the market (with an 11% gain), ignoring the anomalous Robert Wiseman. This is strange. We would usually expect to see financials and growth stocks outperforming during a good run.

So the investor's logic is that such defensive shares are the way to go for a reasonably safe ride and some good dividends along the way.

A defensive plan of attack
The investor was specifically commenting on his intention to carry on this defensive experiment -- but this time using real money -- after I updated the baked-beans-and-shotguns portfolio a couple of weeks ago.

Now I wouldn't take issue with this. I believe the shares I selected will do reasonably well over time, and I own shares in four of the six companies myself. For the record, the current lineup of Armageddon shares comprises J Sainsbury (ISE: SBRY.L) , which I still think is the best value of the big three U.K.-listed supermarket groups at 311.7 pence.

I also suggested Morrison as an alternative, which looks like a good value at 269.3 pence, and BP (ISE: BP.L) stays in the portfolio at 438.1 pence for its low forward price-to-earnings ratio, decent yield and balance sheet -- and still slightly contrarian nature from the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Tea grower Camellia (ISE: CAM.L) was a new addition at 9,500 pence (now 9,700 pence), due to its rock-solid balance sheet and essential nature (though be warned -- it has a very disappointing yield and is 51% owned by a charitable foundation).

British Polythene Industries stays in for now despite its rise, as the prospective P/E is still only 6.6 at 355 pence, as does Carr's Milling Industries (ISE: CRM.L) . At 870 pence, Carr's is on a P/E of around 9.6, with NTAV per share of 674 pence. Small-cap confectioner Zetar looks even cheaper at 203.5 pence with a prospective P/E of just 4.9.

Real life vs. fantasy
When I first devised this defensive portfolio, the market was very jittery indeed and the FTSE stood at 5,127. It's hardly a confident place to be now, but it's not as fearful at 5,659. So the new investor is entering the market at a worse time with real money, for those of us who prefer the bottom-up approach to investing. In other words, it's more dangerous now.

You can't tell someone else where to put their money. All you can do is try and weigh up the pros and cons of an investment and share your feelings. At the bottom of each article, it will tell you whether the writer is really putting his/her money where their mouth is. But it won't tell you how much. He or she could have 100 pounds or 100,000 pounds in a company for all the reader knows.

All I can say is that I have a financially significant stake in four of the companies above. But putting your real money at stake is a different ball game to running a paper portfolio. No matter how hard you try, you can't truly make yourself believe it's real and act accordingly.

That isn't to say a paper portfolio is a waste of time. But it is a very dangerous way of giving oneself misplaced confidence. In the heat of a real battle, on a day when the FTSE 100 has shed almost 250 points as it did on Sept. 21 last year, or close to 9% as it did on Oct. 10, 2008, it's easier to average down on paper than it is with real cash, even in defensive stocks.

But it may be necessary to take courage if you want to make real money -- during these times of extreme fear.

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David Holding owns shares inSainsbury, Morrison, BP, and Zetar. He doesn't own shares in any of the other companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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