In the past two weeks, market volatility has spiked and major indices have traded down 7% or more. I follow the market closely and monitor the situation for news which might impact our portfolios. Generally, I prefer to use this space to discuss beneficial financial planning topics, but I know that everyone is wondering about the market, so here is my take on the situation.
The recent pull-back has been relatively minor and probably long-overdue, given that we’ve gone five years since a significant correction. The good news is that stock fundamentals are strong and the US economic recovery remains in place, although actual growth is somewhat tepid. While equity prices have risen, valuations are within a normal range and not at the elevated levels we saw in previous bubbles. With interest rates remaining extremely low, “risk” assets like stocks still offer greater potential return than cash or fixed income.
Having shared my opinion, I have to say that it really doesn’t matter what I think will happen. Anyone who thinks that data is “proof” of what the market is going to do is fooling themselves. No one can predict the market. Fortunately, long-term investment success does not require a crystal ball. What it does require is a well-researched and executed plan, a diversified allocation, and most importantly, the fortitude and discipline to stick to your plan.
I was asked this week if I got my clients out of the market before the recent turmoil. No, I didn’t and I didn’t sell any of my own stock positions, either. I was doing the opposite this week: buying in a number of portfolios. And I was quite happy to have the opportunity to pick up ETF shares 5-10% lower than they cost just three or four weeks ago. I’m focused on the long-term opportunity and not the present adversity. Although I don’t know where the market will be one month from now, I strongly believe that the market will be significantly higher in 10 years from now and that is what really matters.
So rather than worry about the troubles of the day and the things you cannot control, I believe investors are best served by focusing on the things you can control, such as:
- establishing a target asset allocation to match your risk tolerance, required return, and time horizon;
- diversifying to eliminate company-specific risks;
- keeping investment expenses low and reducing tax drag to a minimum; and
- how much you save and invest.
Of these four, the last one is crucial to your individual success. The news tends to make us focus on trying to improve short-term investment performance, instead of how much you should be saving. If your goal is accumulation, it’s more important to be thinking about how to increase your saving than how to increase your return. We have to learn to ignore the noise of the daily media so we can stay focused on how to achieve our long-term objectives.
Optimism is key. Not a blind naivete, but the confidence to know that you are on the right path, and the recognition that sometimes the path is uphill. I remember a bit of wisdom I heard years ago “You make your money in bear markets, you just don’t know it until later.” If you’ve got five or more years to retirement, you should welcome each pullback in the market as a tremendous opportunity.
With this understanding, there are some small ways to take advantage of the recent market turmoil and use the recent drop in prices to your advantage:
- Put excess cash to work; if you haven’t made your IRA contribution, now is a good time.
- Rebalance your portfolio.
- Swap losing positions to harvest tax losses; replace your high expense funds with tax-efficient, low cost ETFs. Use the downturn as an opportunity to clean up your portfolio.
- Add Emerging Market equities, if you don’t have any. EM is down more than domestic equities and has lagged for several years.
Market timing may be an alluring mirage, but ultimately is a counterproductive distraction for investors. If you’re able to take advantage of the pullback, that’s fine, but if you’re already invested, don’t think that you have to “do something”. Most of the time, doing nothing is ultimately the best option!