No matter what happens next with the stock market and the economy, experts agree on one thing: This is no time to panic.
That’s not because of the actions of the Federal Reserve Bank, the potential results of the tariff skirmish between the United States and China, the fallout from slowing earnings results or because the financial talking heads have any sense of agreement on what might happen next.
In fact, the only thing that every expert says with consistency, regardless of the situation, virtually every time they’re describing the news is that “This is no time to panic.”
It is, of course, the dumbest, most meaningless statement in investing and personal finance, because when an expert says you’d be wrong to panic now, they’re implying that there’s actually a good time to panic.
They won’t tell you when that is, of course. They may say not to freak out over a market’s loss of 5 percent in a week, but they don’t ever say “If it drops 20 percent, it’s time to panic.”
In fact, if the market threatened such a quick, steep loss, the vast majority of financial talking heads would be saying, again, “This is no time to panic.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary in my office includes this definition for panic: “a sudden widespread fright concerning financial affairs that results in a depression of values caused by extreme measures for protection of property (as securities).”
In short, first people get nervous; when the hysteria becomes a frenzy, there’s a stampede for the exits at any price.
That hardly sounds like something any rational investor would want to participate in. Get to the exit before everyone is looking for them, maybe; wait through the depression of values until there is a recovery, sure.
Join the fleeing, horrified crush? No, thank you.
So it’s never “time to panic” and yet people freak out; it’s a natural, financially tragic reaction to circumstances beyond an individual investor’s control.
What you can take charge of, however, is the conditions in your own financial life could trigger panic mode.
You can look at your plan and portfolio and figure out what about your risk tolerance, asset allocation, investments and more would cause you to flip out and self-destruct if the market blindsided you tomorrow with a 20 percent decline.
Identify those triggers — work to change your perspective and your investments accordingly — and you can avoid pulling them at the wrong times.
It’s a particularly good time now to identify your stressors, because the market has been in a sideways range despite many recent volatile days, with the economy slowing but not yet showing signs of reaching recessionary levels.
In other words, it’s easy to envision things that might make you lose perspective and feel panicky, even if the bulk of experts aren’t calling for a recession and an accompanying market meltdown for two years or more.
Asking and answering these questions now should reduce your potential to implode later:
What’s wrong — what scares you — about your portfolio as it is constructed right now?
Think Titanic here; people wanted it to be “unsinkable,” but there’s folly to thinking you’ve got everything right and perfect.
Find the flaws in your portfolio — too much cash, not enough cash, poorly diversified, over-diversified, inappropriate for your age, too risky — and address them now.
This won’t guarantee that you won’t hit the proverbial iceberg of recession, depression or loss, but it dramatically improves your chances of not being sunk by it.
What scares you about the market?
Headlines, trade wars, heightened volatility, the inverted yield curve, interest rates, take your pick, there is plenty to worry about.
Determine your true fear, the king spider or giant snake of the financial world that truly terrifies you. What if you had no choice but to face it head-on?
You may dislike spiders, but in a life-or-death struggle, I’m betting on the human to get over the fears and for the bug to get squished.
You can overcome difficult markets too.
Identify your greatest fear and come up with a plan for what you will do if you come face-to-face with it. It may be that rebalancing a portfolio — moving it back to your planned allocation — increases your control, or that diversifying or adding an asset class like precious metals takes away some fear. You may want to get defensive and look for sources of income/dividends that can keep the cash flowing during a downturn.
Your portfolio right now may be like a leaky roof, just fine so long as the sun is shining. You’re preparing for storms; the roof is a lot easier to fix now than when the winds are blowing and rain is falling.
What is your worst-case scenario? How would you deal with it?
Many consumers fear longevity risk — the potential to outlive their money — or sequence-of-return risk, where the market tanks right when an individual retires and needs to rely on the market rather than a job to cover expenses. An ill-timed recession can derail years of plans.
Others fear the loss of health, or years of medical bills. Maybe it’s job concerns and the ability to replace income.
Be specific here. Be real and avoid terrible fantasies — the market could lose 50 percent of its value, but your index funds are not going to zero — and find a solution to each problem.
If the answer is working a bit longer — through the years of a bear market, perhaps — or taking on a side gig or setting aside more money preretirement, prepare for those possibilities now.
This is where you make cost-effective decisions about long-term care insurance and other protections that will give you peace of mind when the world seems to be trying to rob you of such calm.
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity; make your own and you’ll be able to maintain calm when everyone else is dismayed and feeling the urge to panic.