Welcome to the Coronavirus Stock Market. After setting an all-time high on February 19, the market plummeted last week, and is down nearly 15% from its highs. As the virus spreads, the economic impact is growing. Companies are sending employees home, shuttering manufacturing, leading to less travel, less restaurant meals, and lower consumer spending.
As an investor, what should you do, given that we don’t know how much worse the contagion will grow? I don’t know. No one knows. No one has a crystal ball to know how the disease will spread or how the economies or markets will be impacted. Recognizing that this is unknowable information is the key to understanding what to do.
A history lesson may help. Big drops of 3.5% in a day are somewhat rare and they are felt as being quite shocking. We had a couple of days like that this week. Over the past 33 years, there have been 55 days of a 3.5%+ drop. In 45 of those instances, the market was higher 12 months later. Much higher, on average 20% higher. In only 10 of 55 drops was the market lower a year later. (Source: Barrons) Those aren’t bad odds, and the reward for staying invested could be worthwhile.
What I did this week
If it helps, let me share what I did in my own portfolio this week. I did not sell anything. However, I did have a couple of bonds which were called. With the new cash in my account, I revisited my asset allocation. Since equities are down, I was presently underweight to my target percentage of stocks. So, I purchased more shares of stock Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) that I own.
Sure, it’s possible that the purchases I made this week will be even lower next week. But I’m not trying to time the market. No one can tell you when the Coronavirus stock market carnage will cease and it will be safe to invest again. We are stuck with uncertainty no matter when we make a decision. So the optimal decision, I think, is to stick to a disciplined process. Create a diversified target asset allocation and hold that portfolio regardless of epidemics, elections, wars, or any other human events. Rebalance your portfolio periodically, when you have cash to add, or when your allocation has shifted.
If you made any recent purchases in taxable accounts, consider harvesting your losses. Immediately repurchase another fund to maintain your target allocation. This is solely to lock in a capital loss for tax purposes, so be careful to not change your asset allocation.
The Pain of Losses
There’s an old saying on Wall Street that stocks take the stairs up but the elevator down. Gains are slow and plodding, but losses are straight down. That’s definitely what happened this week. From a psychological perspective, the pain of a 10% loss is more acute than the thrill of a 10% gain. This increases likelihood of making investment errors.
Everyone agrees that we shouldn’t try to time the market when the market is rising. But when the market is down, we have to really resist the urge to go to cash, when our amygdala is screaming Run! Hide! Get out of the market before you lose everything! That biological mechanism may have helped our ancestors avoid being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, but is a detriment to long-term investing.
Bonds and Alternatives
While stocks have been falling, investors seem to be buying bonds no matter how low the yield. As money floods into bonds, prices go up and yields go down. The 10-Year Treasury reached an all-time low yield on Friday of 1.09%. Unbelievable, and yet this didn’t even make any headlines this week. With low rates, expect virtually all of your callable corporate and municipal bonds to get called. And then good luck finding a replacement – I’m seeing 2% yields at 10+ years. That’s terrible for a BBB-rated credit.
This is a good time to refinance your mortgage. If you can save 1 percent or more, it is probably going to be worth the change. That’s just about the only benefit of the low interest rates.
Today’s yields make bonds quite unappealing and dividend stocks more attractive. Some good companies are down significantly (why is Chevron down 25% this year?). We were buying stocks at higher prices last month, and if you like those companies, you should like them even better when they are on sale. Bonds won’t even keep up with inflation and the low interest rates will push more investors into stocks.
Stocks have much higher risks than bonds, and it is simply unacceptable for most investors to be 100% in stocks. Fixed, multi-year guaranteed annuities have better yields than treasury, corporate, and municipal bonds and are also guaranteed. We can get over 3% on a 5-year annuity, versus 0.87% for a 5Y Treasury or 1.6% on a 5Y CD. Annuities remain very unpopular, but I think they are a better fixed income investment than bonds if you do not need liquidity. I suggest laddering fixed annuities over a 5-year maturity, 20% into five sleeves.
Our Alternative Investment in Preferred Stocks were down a couple of percent this week, but nothing like the bloodbath in stocks. Some preferreds that were trading near $26 are now trading near $25. With a $25 par price, this is an excellent entry point for investors.
The Coronavirus stock market impact has been shocking. Investors are not going to be happy when they open their February statements. Realizing that we cannot predict the future, we need to avoid the “flight” response. The challenge for an investor remains to keep the discipline to stick to their plan of a diversified allocation. Rebalance and hold.