Some people watch horror movies with their eyes closed, at least through the horrific parts. And plenty of people have “I can’t watch” moments when the tension ramps up in something as benign as a romantic comedy.

A lot of investors know how that feels right now: They couldn’t bear to look at their investment portfolio last week as the market took a beating that included the single biggest one-day point drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In any of those situations, the important part isn’t what you miss when you are in the dark, it’s what you see and how you react to it when you re-open your eyes.

It’s relevant to investors right now because with the stock market going through a volatile upheaval over the last two weeks, knowing “when to look” is a personal decision that can have long-lasting consequences.

Look at your portfolio at the wrong moment, and you could see paper losses from the peak that are frightening, with the potential to become terrifying. Or the wrong moment might be the one when things have rallied and you convince yourself that everything will be okay, just before you get kicked in the pants by the next leg down.

It’s like an odd form of market timing, except all you are really doing is deciding when to check in on your portfolio with the intention to potentially act on what you see there. Looking at the wrong time can be just as bad as investing at the wrong time.

The question that each individual investor needs to ask is when they are going to see just how a downturn — or a rebound — has affected them, and what they plan to do with the answer.


Years ago, investors weren’t inundated with stock information. They were more likely to check in on their accounts via a monthly statement in the mail than by calling in to a brokerage office to find out what was going on minute by minute.

Today, account information is available on demand, portfolios visible 24/7. The minute someone finds out that the market has, say, dropped 1,000 points, they can be evaluating the carnage in their own portfolio, if they want to.

See enough blood in the streets, and you might react differently than if you know there’s trouble but can’t see the bloody bits and gory details.

I don’t look at my accounts in the middle of significant market flux. I felt no need or urge to check in as the Dow dropped 1,190 points on Feb. 27.

I was certain my portfolio would be down, roughly by about the same percentage as the market decline.

United States pennies (AP Photo/Dan Loh)
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Nothing feels “correct” about a 10 percent “correction” that takes thousands of dollars off of your paper net worth.


I don’t look on heavy motion days because seeing a big swing could change my perspective. I’m not being moved off of my long-term strategies by the market, but I don’t want to have that faith and conviction tested in the crucible of what feels like a free-fall.

My long-term investments are staying put no matter what the market does on any given day; no financial expert ever has suggested there might be a good time to panic, so I eliminate the thought (and the possibility) for any panicky reaction.

Any short-term monies or securities I might consider selling are on my watch list, with any decisions prepared in advance, meaning that I have decided on an exit strategy without factoring in the market’s volatility.

Likewise, if I am sitting on dry powder looking for buying opportunities, I have been active from the sidelines, identifying my targets and what would motivate me to act. Thus, I may buy if the market’s volatility puts something on sale, but the decision was made away from the daily volatility.

I’ve heard from people who thought I was taking a “head in the sand” approach, but I’d disagree. I know enough about where my portfolio stands to not be worried; but head-in-the-sand is fine by me if it is how a long-term investor stays the course amid short-term turmoil.

I know enough about myself to know that I don’t like being wrong. When the market is in the middle of a big swing, a lot of things can feel wrong, and it becomes tougher to have the courage of my convictions.


Deciding the right time to look is a personal decision, but knowing when you want to look is a decision best made when the pressure is off.

There’s plenty of time to wait for an ordinary day, when there is no urgency to act.

For anyone who feels like they’re now watching a horror movie in their portfolio and who can’t stop themselves from checking in — and potentially acting when the carnage gets great enough: identify the investments, allocations and strategies that are jangling the nerves amid daily volatility; double-check that the strategy is sound; prepare changes if it needs shoring up.

Investors typically start losing their grip and bailing out when losses surpass 15 percent. Yet if you build a long-term portfolio to stand up through that kind of downturn — and that, by definition, is necessary for long-term holdings – the right move most often will be no move at all.

Warren Buffett has long noted that he invests on the assumption that they could close the market tomorrow, not re-open it for five or 10 years and that he’d be pleased with the results when trading eventually resumes.

For investors who built their portfolio with a long lens, it’s important not to take a close-up through the wrong viewfinder.

Keep your sense of purpose — money invested properly to reach long, intermediate and short-term goals and needs — and you can keep your head, no matter the blood and guts the market is likely to dish out over the coming weeks and months.