Nobody minds market volatility when it’s in the upward direction. But this week, we got plenty of the type of volatility that we don’t like so much as investors, the kind that inspires headlines with words like “plunge” and that end with exclamation points.
It presents an opportunity, therefore, to remind ourselves of one of the central tenets of the art and science of investing:
You can’t get outperformance without underperformance.
Indeed, the only reason we have a right to expect a higher rate of return on any given investment is that we’re willing to endure greater risk, and, in all likelihood, higher volatility. But just how much volatility?
Let’s look at some of the scariest market moments of the past 50 years, specifically how far the market—in this case, the S&P 500—dropped over a handful of notable time periods:
The question of whether or not the U.S. President or a particular party has an impact–positively or negatively–on stocks, bonds, unemployment, inflation, the deficit, and GDP growth–has been flying around like crazy. But especially in the midst of a contentious election cycle, it’s never been harder to find clear answers.
But take a glance at this interactive chart that enables you to click on each U.S. President going all the way back to 1929 to see what the major market and economic indicators looked like for each presidential cycle. I think you’ll find that it’s conclusively inconclusive:
So, should you consider changing your investment plan ahead of the election?
Short answer: No.
And here’s the slightly longer answer from one of the brightest investment people I know (and a darn good guitar player), Jared Kizer, CFA, Chief Investment Officer, Buckingham Wealth Partners:
Investing is a young person’s game, am I right? I mean, I can understand the argument for ignoring short-term market dives when it’ll be decades before you need to actually touch the money. But what about retirees who need income today? Should retirees and near-retirees be cashing out of stocks on fears that a worldwide pandemic will continue to throttle markets?
First, it’s important to address this question on an emotional level before attempting to respond rationally, because it’s not cold, calculating rationale that leads the charge in times of high market volatility, especially of the downward variety. (Indeed, as my friend Jeff Levine said, “Nobody ever seems to mind volatility when it’s up.”) Furthermore, when we are feeling and responding through the fast-acting, impulsive processor in our brain, thoughtful logic isn’t particularly comforting.
Retirees, in particular, may feel downright scared, and perhaps their fear is justified, because:
They feel disempowered because they’re no longer earning a paycheck and are now reliant entirely on sources of income beyond their control.
They don’t have as much time as an investor in his or her 20s, 30s or 40s to recoup losses.
The math does change for those who are in the distribution phase of their life. Losses can indeed be compounded when you’re taking income out of a portfolio, rather than opportunistically buying through regular contributions.
Therefore, whether you’re a financial advisor counseling someone through turbulent markets or a white-knuckled investor eyeing the eject button, please know this: Every emotion is valid and worthy of acknowledgement. The best financial advisors will take it one step further and explore the emotions in play, even enlisting them in support of the best long-term investment strategy.
Once we’ve addressed this valid concern on an emotional level, it’s time to look at it from a logical perspective, and indeed, for most retirees, it’s important to maintain a healthy allocation to stock exposure in order to ensure that your lifestyle keeps up with inflation. In determining how much risk any investor should take, one’s “time horizon”—the ability to take risk—is a material consideration. A retiree in her late 60s has a shorter time horizon than a new investor in his early 20s, but, however limited, theretiree’s time horizon still isn’t zero.
Retirees need to satisfy income needs today, but they also need to address income needs in the future. Therefore, while it’s a slight oversimplification of a total return portfolio strategy, in times of extreme market volatility, I would invite retirees to view the meaningful portion of conservative fixed income in their portfolio as their income engine in the short-term while their portfolio’s stock exposure is designed to generate income years from now.
(Of course, this presumes that one’s fixed income portfolio is actually conservative, a stabilizing force in your portfolio. Corporate, longer-term, and especially high-yield bonds tend to have equity-like characteristics in down markets; so dare to be boring with your fixed income allocation.)
The optimal percentage of equities in a retirement portfolio will be driven by the retiree’s need to take risk. If you don’t need to take the risk, who am I (or any other financial person with a propensity for stock market cheerleading) to convince you otherwise? Yes, you might need a boost from market returns to outpace inflation. And yes, even if you’d struggle to spend all your money in this lifetime if you kept it in a Mason jar, you might consider investing it for the next generation. But there’s no moral imperative to endure market volatility if you don’t need or want the long-term benefits we expect to receive.
And that’s especially because the most important factor in determining how much equity risk you take in your portfolio is your internal willingness to assume risk. This is the gut-check test, and if you’re at risk of bailing out at the bottom—the worst possible time to sell—you must limit your exposure to stocks. Sticking with a conservative portfolio will earn you more in the long run than fleeing a more aggressive one.
Of course, you can only “stay the course” if you have one. You can only stick with the strategy that exists. Typically, emotions are heightened among those who don’t fully understand or can’t fully articulate their strategy and especially among those who don’t have one.
Too many investors own a collection of securities—or even a collection of someone else’s strategies—that have built up over a lifetime, rather than a well-designed, purposely built, customized portfolio. Those investors should be concerned, and they should use this market hysteria du jour as the catalyst for a substantive portfolio review.
If you’re in the minority, however, who do have an understandable, goals-based strategy—who have considered their ability, willingness and need to take risk—and who have proportionately set their exposure to stocks, then by all means, rest easy and rebalance. Know that however ugly this particular market event gets, it likely will not amount to a blip on the radar when looking at your lifetime of investing. Acting rashly in these situations is more likely to do harm than good.
Just for fun, Google the words “market pullback.” There are more than 11 million results–many of them market predictions that are worth even less of your time than it took to Google “market pullback.”
However, despite their worthlessness, market predictions remain as predictable as market opens and closes. (And I predict no end in sight.)
First, there’s a clear profit motive. Apparent urgency leads to activity, and activity is still how most of the financial services industry makes its money.
“Bullish predictions encourage investors to pour fresh money into the markets, helping asset management companies to enjoy rising profits,” the New York Times reported, noting that the Wall Street forecaster’s consensus since 2000 has averaged a 9.5% increase each year. They accidentally got it (almost) right in 2016, but in 2008, the consensus prognostication missed the mark by 49 percentage points (an outcome that makes your local weatherman seem like a harbinger of accuracy)!
In my hometown of Baltimore, there’s an oft-heard saying that seems especially applicable when, like now, the seasons are changing: “If you don’t like the weather today, just wait until tomorrow.” For whatever meteorological reason, it’s not uncommon for an absolutely miserable Monday to turn into a gorgeous Tuesday. Temperatures have been known to swing as much as 20 degrees inside of an afternoon.
A scientific view of stock market history, unfortunately, shows us an even greater propensity for unpredictability and volatility.
Even the years that we refer to as the “good” ones, in retrospect, test our mettle. For example, between 1950 and 2014, a span of 65 years, the S&P 500 ended the year with a gain 51 times (or in almost 80% of them). Not bad. But in how many of those up years do you think investors would’ve found themselves in a “losing” position at some point in the year?
Actually, the headlines on Friday, November 29th, 1940 read, “Livermore, Wall St. Wonder, Dead.”[i] I was recently re-acquainted with Jesse Livermore’s story—that of a self-made trading savant whose early-life exploits were regaled in a series of articles turned classic work of historical fiction, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, by Edwin Lefevre[ii]. The volume is still handed out as a guide book to new traders every year, an ironic tradition considering the book was written as a cautionary tale.
It was first published in 1923, after Livermore had won and lost a couple fortunes already, but prior to his biggest take when he shorted the market in the Great Depression, increasing his net worth to a stunning $100 million. Livermore subsequently went bankrupt—not for the first time—and was suspended as a member of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1934. So why do we continue to romanticize the story of an investor who lost as much money as he ever made? Why do we glorify the existence of a man who, thrice married, deemed his life’s work an abject failure?
The story’s remarkable appeal should not surprise us—regardless of the futility of sustainable success in the business of gambling, the allure of the quick or easy fortune seems a siren’s song that will forever be sung, heard and followed. Maybe the appeal of Livermore’s sad story is that he did not follow his own rules, by his own admission, and that if we can manage to do so, we might be able to make the equivalent fortune without losing it.
Don’t bet on it. When attending to the business of fooling the market, we almost invariably end up fooling ourselves. And while one of the first stages of grief for the newly penniless may be blaming our failure on the market, like many others, Livermore eventually placed the blame where it rightly lay—on himself—and sadly took his own life at the age of 63.
Unfortunately, it’s not a stretch to suggest that dedicating ourselves wholly to the pursuit of money and riches often leads to death—literally for some but figuratively for many, many more. Relinquish the claim to overnight riches in favor of lifetime investing. You have a favorable probability of generating comfortable wealth through a lifetime of dedicated investing, but even the most disciplined gamblers eventually learn this sad truth—the house always wins.
[i] “The Daily News Record,” Harrisonburg, Virginia, November 29th, 1940
[ii] I highly recommend the edition published by John Wiley & Sons in 2010, newly and informatively annotated by Jon D. Markman.