Taking your money and dropping it into different investment vehicles may seem easy. But if you want to be a successful investor, it can be really tough. Statistics show that most retail investors—those who aren't investment professionals—lose money every year. There could be a variety of reasons why, but there is one that every investor with a career outside the investment market understands: They don't have time to research a large number of stocks, and they don't have a research team to help with that monumental task.

So the moral of the story is if you don't do enough research, you'll end up raking in losses. That's the bad news. The good news is you can cut down the losses as well as the amount of research you need to do by looking at some key factors investing. Learn more about the five essentials of investing below.

Key Takeaways

  • Research companies fully—what they do, where they do it, and how.
  • Look for the company's price-to-earnings ratio—the current share price relative to its per-share earnings.
  • A company's beta can tell you much risk is involved with a stock compared to the rest of the market.
  • If you want to park your money, invest in stocks with a high dividend.
  • Although reading them can be complicated, look for some of the most simple cues from charts like the stock's price movement.

What They Do

In his book "Real Money," Jim Cramer advises investors never to purchase a stock unless they have an exhaustive knowledge of how the companies make money. What do they manufacture? What kind of service do they offer? In what countries do they operate? What is their flagship product and how is it selling? Are they known as the leader in their field? Think of this as a first date. You probably wouldn't go on a date with somebody if you had no idea who they were. If you do, you're asking for trouble.

This information is very easy to find. Using the search engine of your choice, go to the company website and read about them. Then, as Cramer advises, go to a family member and educate them on your potential investment. If you can answer all of their questions, you know enough.

Price-to-Earnings (P/E) Ratio

Imagine for a moment you were in the market for somebody who could help you with your investments. You interview two people. One person has a long history of making people a lot of money. Your friends have seen a big return from this person, and you can't find any reason why you shouldn't trust him with your investment dollars. He tells you that for every dollar he makes for you, he's going to keep 40 cents, leaving you with 60 cents.

The other guy is just getting started in the business. He has very little experience and, although he seems promising, he doesn't have much of a track record of success. The advantage of investing your money with this guy is that he's cheaper. He only wants to keep 20 cents for every dollar he makes you. But what if he doesn't make you as many dollars as the first guy?

You can calculate the P/E ratio by dividing a company's market value per share by its earnings per share.

If you understand this example, you understand the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio. These ratios are used to measure a company's current share price relative to its per-share earnings. The company can be compared to other, similar corporations so that analysts and investors can determine its relative value. So if a company has a P/E ratio of 20, this means investors are willing to pay $20 for every $1 per earnings. That might seem expensive but not if the company is growing fast.

The P/E can be found by comparing the current market price to the cumulative earnings of the last four quarters. Compare this number to other companies similar to the one you're researching. If your company has a higher P/E than other similar companies, there had better be a reason. If it has a lower P/E but is growing fast, that's an investment worth watching.

Beta

Beta seems like something difficult to understand, but it's not. It measures volatility, or how moody your company's stock has acted over the last five years. In essence, it measures the systemic risk involved with a company's stock compared to that of the entire market. You can find In fact, this value on the same page as the P/E ratio on a major stock data provider, such as Yahoo or Google.

Think of the S&P 500 as the pillar of mental stability. If your company drops or rises in value more than the index over a five-year period, it has a higher beta. With beta, anything higher than one is high—meaning higher risk—and anything lower than one is low beta or lower risk.

Beta says something about price risk, but how much does it say about fundamental risk factors? You have to watch high beta stocks closely because, although they have the potential to make you a lot of money, they also have the potential to take your money. A lower beta means that a stock doesn't react to the S&P 500 movements as much as others. This is known as a defensive stock because your money is much safer. You won't make as much in a short amount of time, but you also don't have to watch it every day.

Dividend

If you don't have time to watch the market every day, and you want your stocks to make money without that kind of attention, look for dividends. Dividends are like interest in a savings account—you get paid regardless of the stock price. Dividends are distributions made by a company to its shareholders as a reward from its profits. The amount of the dividend is decided by its board of directors and are generally issued in cash, though it isn't uncommon for some companies to issue dividends in the form of stock shares.

Dividends mean a lot to many investors because they provide a steady stream of income. Most companies issue them at regular intervals, mostly on a quarterly basis. Investing in dividend-paying companies is a very popular strategy for many traditional investors. They can often provide investors with a sense of security during times of economic uncertainty.

The best dividends are normally issued by large companies that have predictable profits. Some of the most well-known sectors with dividend-paying companies include oil and gas, banks and financials, basic materials, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and utilities. Dividends of 6% or more are not unheard of in high-quality stocks. Companies that are in the early stages such as start-ups may not have enough profitability as yet to issue dividends.

But before you go out to purchase stock shares, look for the company's dividend rate. If you simply want to park money in the market, invest in stocks with a high dividend.

The Chart

There are many different types of stock charts. These include line charts, bar charts, candlestick charts—charts used by both fundamental and technical analysts. But reading these charts isn't always easy. In fact, it can be very complicated. Learning to read them is a skill that takes a lot of time to acquire.

So what does this mean to you as a retail investor? You don't have to overlook this step. That's because the most basic chart reading takes very little skill. If an investment's chart starts at the lower left and ends at the upper right, that's a good thing. If the chart heads in a downward direction, stay away and don't try to figure out why.

There are thousands of stocks to choose from without picking one that loses money. If you really believe in this stock, put it on your watch list and come back to it at a later time. There are many people who believe in investing in stocks that have scary-looking charts, but they have research time and resources that you probably don't.

The Bottom Line

Nothing takes the place of exhaustive research. However, one key way to protect your assets is to invest for the longer term by taking advantage of dividends and finding stocks with a proven record of success. Unless you have the time, risky and aggressive trading strategies should be avoided or minimized.