These days, “Don’t look” is an actual investment strategy.
It’s not just espoused by plenty of experts, but it is being followed by millions of investors whose portfolios were swamped under the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic shutdown.
It’s not a terrible strategy either, at least for investors who had a solid financial and investment plan in place a few months ago, before the black swan that is COVID-19 grew to its current size and status.
The idea, of course, is that when this event passes – and it will, though it is likely to linger on the stock market longer than it does with patients and potential victims – your portfolio will be down significantly, but still built and balanced based on your long-term goals and risk profile.
It – and you and your ability to reach your retirement goals – will recover as the stock market does.
If this event is like most bear markets – and the economy was healthy and showing signs of growth before the virus brought it to a complete stop – investors recover in no more than a decade, often much less.
Countless studies back up this thinking, noting that investors typically turn a bad situation worse when they jump around in rough markets trying to improve on a buy, hold, stick-out-the-downturn mindset.
Yet, at some point, everybody looks.
They open and peek at a statement, they see the market rebound a bit and feel like assessing the damage, or they simply come to grips with the fact that best way to rebuild an investment portfolio after a downturn is to plan for it actively.
And the first question you need to answer, once you have looked, is “What’s next?”
This is not about the stock market and the right time to go bargain-hunting, or trying to figure out if/when a bottom is in place.
This “What’s next?” question is about the investor, their individual holdings and their investment strategy.
For a decade, I wrote the “Stupid Investment of the Week” column for MarketWatch.com, highlighting bad choices and situations that were “less than ideal for the average investor.”
Nearly every week, we had to note that inclusion in the column was not intended to be a sign to dump the investment now.
Most people assumed that if you have a bad investment or had made a dumb decision that the right way to fix it was by selling and moving on. Often, however, that could result in making a bad situation worse.
The same happens now, as investors sort through their best and worst investment choices.
Consider the case of Mike, a retiree from the Richmond, Va., area, who has owned ExxonMobil stock for several years (full disclosure: So have I). Mike bought the stock for its yield, a 4% dividend; ExxonMobil is a “dividend aristocrat,” generally defined as a member of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index that has increased its dividend payouts for at least 25 consecutive years. In ExxonMobil’s case, dividends have gone up for 37 straight years.
Last year, with oil companies struggling and XOM shares faltering, Mike started thinking of selling. At the time, he had a small loss in the stock; the continuing dividend payout – his reason for investing – remained in place, so Mike held fast.
Now, his loss is four times larger, and some experts are questioning whether ExxonMobil – along with Chevron and a few other dividend aristocrats – can maintain the dividend.
Mike has lost faith in the stock.
He could keep his eyes close and wait for a rebound – hopefully collecting the dividend, which has grown to nearly 8.5% of the company’s diminished stock price – and it might pay off.
Barring a dividend cut, his cash flow is what he expected.
Yet in the realm of “What’s next?” for Mike, it may be the wrong call to stick it out.
If he held the stock in a taxable account, he could take advantage of the tax benefits of a loss, which might ease the pain and help him re-position into something he’s more comfortable with.
Mike doesn’t want to realize a loss – now about $6,000 by his estimate – but if hanging on is emotionally tougher than making a change, and if an upgrade to the portfolio would improve his peace of mind and retirement security, then a prudent change could be in the offing.
If he can’t see himself sticking around with XOM until it has a chance to recover – or if the company cuts the dividend and ends his primary reason to hang on – it is better for him to make a controlled change than to panic once his eyes are open.
He is far from alone. I could cite countless examples from investors who have their own individual, mostly unique situations.
For all of them, what is next depends on their time horizon, risk tolerance, the makeup of their portfolio as they open their eyes and assess the damage that has been done.
The important thing is to not be freaked out once your vision clears. There is never a time for panic and it’s too late to avoid the downturn we’ve experienced thus far, but it’s not too late to assess where you are at, to plot a course for where you are going and to decide if you need to make changes in order to reach that financial destination.
Riding out the course you have set may indeed be right for most people, but don’t wait too long before making sure you feel like you can be part of that group.
Even as you decide what is next for you and your investments, you can be sure that what the markets experience next will be months – and maybe years – of heightened volatility and uncertainty.
If you can’t see yourself riding that out from here, you won’t be able to keep your eyes or your portfolio closed long enough to see a stick-it-out strategy pay off.