When the NASDAQ reached record highs Monday for the first time since mid-February – and with the other major indexes within sniffing distance of prior peaks – Oliver in Bellevue told me that he “really dodged a bullet” on the market’s recent meltdown.
Beyond not loving the idiom given current events and headlines, I disliked what was behind those words, because Oliver’s narrow escape served as a form of proof that he could ride out the next market downturn without changing anything.
It’s as if he’s owed another great escape for any time his portfolio gets into trouble.
He may be right, of course; long-term, I would always bet on the market to recover and climb.
But that doesn’t mean I’d want to get blasted on the way there.
Oliver’s thinking is pretty common, at least among investors who I’ve been hearing from recently. He’s a do-it-yourself 50-something guy who listens to “Money Life with Chuck Jaffe,” and the market’s fast rebound scrubbed away most of the pain he was feeling in late February and March, and most of the fears he had during the heart of the coronavirus pandemic. (I did not check back with him since Thursday’s sharp market drop.)
But there is the rub: Had his portfolio been appropriate for his risk tolerance, temperament and needs, he would not feel like he got lucky and avoided catastrophe so much as he got what he expected, a downturn he could weather without losing sleep.
When pressed, Oliver notes that he hasn’t “rebalanced my portfolio since before everything happened in 2008.”
Rebalancing is the practice of putting a portfolio back onto its targets, selling leaders and reinvesting into laggards in order to maintain an asset allocation.
Let’s say Oliver’s portfolio was a 60-40 split between stocks and bonds at the start of 2005, well before the Financial Crisis of ’08. To keep the math simple, let’s say he had $100,000 invested.
Over the last 15 years in a total stock market fund, his equity holdings have returned an annualized average of more than 9 percent. That has turned his $60,000 in stocks into roughly $240,000 today.
Meanwhile, in that time, his investment in a total bond market fund would have generated an annualized average return of roughly 4.25 percent, turning his $40,000 from ’05 into roughly $80,000 today.
That means his portfolio is now valued at $320,000, but 75 percent of that money is in stocks and 25 percent is in bonds. Oliver is now 15 years older, but his asset-allocation is more appropriate for someone 15 years younger.
That kind of imbalance is precisely why he felt the 30 percent market drop in February and March so acutely. He was too heavy in stocks and was watching the market punish his inaction.
His primary course of action, he said, involved prayer.
In hindsight, of course, the inaction worked out and his prayers were answered. The market’s fast rebound steered the bullet astray.
The thing that derails most investors is less the market than their own emotions.
There is no one right way to make money, no perfect strategy to follow; the idea is to uncover what works for you, a strategy you can live with in good times and bad that will get the job done.
In a serious market meltdown, almost every strategy used by individual investors will suffer, but there is an enormous difference between being nervous and truly frightened.
Nervousness is discomforting, but it doesn’t necessarily prompt you to act. Fright demands action.
Once Oliver admitted that he had been genuinely scared that the paper losses he suffered might ruin his retirement and force him to work longer and more, he was on the verge of panic.
He admits to being ready to throw in the towel twice in March, nearly making a move at the bottom – which would have meant taking the bullet and booking a big loss.
That is the close call that should have made it clear that he must make adjustments so that the allocation matches his mindset.
Yes, if the market’s hot streak continues, he can go back to letting it ride and feeling like he’s holding a winning hand. As long as the movement is positive and happy, he won’t be complaining about volatility; no one talks excessive risk when it’s working in their favor.
With the economy trying to rebuild momentum as it reopens, however, and with stimulus packages typically spurring inflation over time, with key industries like hospitality, energy and more struggling to participate in the rebound, and with economic numbers that are impossible to forecast and even tougher to analyze, there are plenty of experts who believe the market will revisit recent lows again before it moves higher.
Sitting still through that is like living in an earthquake zone, where every tremor can make you think, “This is the big one.”
For investors feeling the shakes, hoping to dodge the bullet isn’t really a strategy.
Oliver and investors like him should not think that what they are doing at that point is buy-and-hold investing; it’s more like run-and-hide or duck-and-cover investing.
True buy-and-hold involves taking control, minimizing risk and following a plan. It’s not supposed to be about having the wrong mix of investments and hoping to get lucky and make it pay off.
The market’s faster-than-expected rebound may give everyone a do-over, a chance to re-evaluate their portfolio in the face of whatever the market can dish out next. Most people will be better off at least considering how close they came to panicking and do what they can to make sure they don’t come that close to trouble again.