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Don’t Lose It

Jonathan Clements

HERE’S THE LEAST surprising thing you’ll read this week: You can’t control the financial markets. They’re driven by news—and we simply don’t know what news we’ll get in the weeks and months ahead, whether it’s about the spread of the coronavirus, its impact on the global economy or something else entirely.

But don’t despair: There’s also much that we can control, including how much we save and spend, the amount of investment risk we take, how much we pay in investment costs, our portfolio’s tax efficiency and—most critically at a time like this—our own emotional reaction to market ups and downs.

Indeed, if you were going to design a laboratory experiment to test investors’ mettle, this past week would provide a nearly perfect template. Think about it: We have a virus without a vaccine that’s spreading rapidly—but nobody knows how rapidly—which is damaging the global economy—but nobody knows how badly—at a time when many U.S. stock investors were already anxious after an extraordinarily long bull market that has pushed valuations to worrisome levels.

Feeling unnerved? It would be shocking if you weren’t. Think about all the ways that this year’s market action has messed with our heads.

Recency bias. In 2019, the S&P 500 stocks were up an impressive 28.9%, excluding dividends. This year, they’re down a fairly modest 7.8%. Which number are we focused on? You already know the answer. Instead of celebrating the huge gains enjoyed over the past decade, investors are fretting about the relatively modest losses suffered this year. Our thinking, alas, tends to be heavily influenced by whatever’s happened most recently.

Extrapolation. The S&P 500 has given up 12% over the past six trading days. The temptation is to take the past week’s losses and extrapolate them into the future. But that would be a classic investor mistake: We imagine we can forecast returns simply by looking at past performance.

Loss aversion. Recent stock losses—and our sense that more damage may lie ahead—is enough to cause many folks to panic. We simply loathe losing money. Indeed, experts in behavioral finance suggest we get at least twice as much pain from losses as pleasure from gains.

Anchoring. As of yesterday’s market close, the S&P 500 had fallen back to levels last seen in mid-October. If somebody had told you in mid-October that U.S. share prices would tread water for the next four months or so, you likely would have shrugged. But instead, we’re anchored on the S&P 500’s Feb. 19 all-time high and the 12% decline since then.

Hindsight bias. Because the current bull market has lasted so long and because stock valuations have been significantly above historical averages, many investors have been expecting a bear market for many years—and they’ve been badly wrong. Despite that, there’s a risk that these folks will decide they predicted the current market decline. That, in turn, may bolster their confidence in their own financial acumen, leading them to make big investment bets.

Unstable risk tolerance. Will those big investment bets involve stashing more in stocks or bailing out? Which way folks jump will likely depend, in part, on how recent market action has affected their tolerance for risk. In theory, we’re supposed to figure out how much risk we can stomach and then build a portfolio that reflects that. In practice, our appetite for risk tends to rise and fall with the financial markets—and right now a lot of investors are likely discovering they aren’t nearly as brave as they imagined.

Illusion of control. Faced with danger, often our instinct is to act. That can make us feel more in control of our destiny—but it may not be good for our financial future. Most of us hold a portfolio built to help us pay for retirement and other goals in the decades ahead. Should we mess with that investment mix simply because of a few rough days in the market? To ask the question is to answer it.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. His most recent articles include Four QuestionsRule the Roost and Nobody Told Me.

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medhat
medhat
1 year ago

Great article, thanks for putting some numbers onto the hunch I’ve had that thus far we’ve essentially given back a few (4+) months of exuberance in the market. Apart from the legitimate human toll the virus will take, my “taking stock” (figuratively and literally) is hopefully addressing my annual procrastination in contributing to my IRA. In this case, having not made that allocation yet, I guess I’m now buying at roughly a 10+% discount versus buying in January. So there’s that.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 year ago

This week set a good example of why an emergency fund is so important so that when it’s desirable NOT to take withdrawals from retirement funds there is a backup to help get you through.

Boss Hogg
Boss Hogg
1 year ago

Good points. Several I never considered before. I wonder if rebalancing should be done now if, say, a 70/30 stock/bond portfolio diverges to 72/28 or more or if rebalancing is something best done over longer time intervals.

Thomas Taylor
Thomas Taylor
1 year ago

I’m 5-6 years from retiring from a stable job, my wife is retired and receives a pension and SS and she’s about 6 years from having to take RMD’s from her 401(k). While I’m concerned about the human toll and effects this virus is having, from an investment perspective, I welcome the chance to add to my savings in the form of lower prices. It can always be the time it’s different this time. I didn’t have much money at the time but I lived through the 87 meltdown. I lived through the tech bubble and 9-11 era and the most recent great recession in 2008-2009 and just kept plugging away and funding a well-diversified portfolio. I don’t think now is the time to panic. I feel I’ve built a portfolio to weather the storms. Will just have to wait and see how big this one will be.

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
1 year ago

The strange thing is I just have a compulsion to sell most of my bonds and buy more stocks! Of course stocks can still go down a long ways from here and stay down for a long time, so as close as I’m getting to retirement age, I think it’s not a particularly wise compulsion. At least my weekly paycheck can buy me some more equities in the meantime!

I was asked recently where I’m at YTD. So I looked, and I was down 5.5%. I also looked at the one year measure, and I’m up 11.8% vs one year ago, despite the recent declines. Perspective is really helpful.

Ginger Williams
Ginger Williams
1 year ago

I’m tempted to buy stock in taxable account, but my plan says to put this week’s money into my Roth IRA CD. Following the plan isn’t exciting, but my CD ladder is the major reason I’ve never pulled money out of the market. I’ll just have to hope 403b money hits the account while market is still down.

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