March 8, 2021

Your Money: All the Ways That Stocks Churn Your Stomach

Sure, a 4 percent swing in the Standard Poor’s 500-stock index reflects some sort of investor conviction. But four days in a row of violent up-and-down movements? The weeklong chart looks like the readout of a lie detector test run amok.

The default advice at times like these is to remain calm. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was also grappling with every emotion along the fight-flight-freeze continuum. The most harrowing feeling is the sense of déjà vu, given the rumors of trouble in European banks and various efforts to ban short-selling. It all feels too much like the fall of 2008, and nobody wants to go back to the way they felt in the year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

So like you, I imagine, I wanted to buy, and I wanted to sell, sometimes on the same day. And I felt rage toward various authority figures. Another recession is a real possibility. And government debt isn’t just having its own impact on stocks worldwide; it’s wreaking havoc on our confidence in our country and our basic sense of security.

These emotions aren’t particularly constructive in the long term, since they can be paralyzing or lead us to make hair-trigger decisions. And if we don’t stop to confront and untangle these feelings, they can easily lead us astray. So this weekend, I’d encourage you to see if any of the visceral reactions I describe below sound anything like your own internal conversations. Then, dig into them — and deploy some countermeasures.

IGNORANCE Given that the stock market seems to be sending a message of utter confusion, there is no shame in admitting that you do not understand what is happening.

The relentless chatter for days on end only compounds the problem. “People do not know what all of these economic terms mean,” said Kenneth Doyle, a psychologist and former financial planner who is now a professor at the University of Minnesota. “But they do know the fear in the voice of commentators, and everything looks dismal.”

When the background noise gets too aggravating, turn it off and remind yourself what you do know. After all, the last dozen years have actually hammered home a number of basic personal finance principles.

In 2000, we learned an important lesson about portfolio diversification when technology stocks collapsed. When Enron declared bankruptcy, it became clear that we should not make long-term investments with our life savings in company stock if we could possibly avoid it. And in the last five years, it’s become painfully clear that housing prices do not go up forever. Small down payments, meanwhile, can leave you stuck with a bad mortgage in a home that is worth less than the balance of your loan.

This time, one lesson is already clear, even if the precise implications are not. Governments at all levels cannot pay for the services we once believed that we would have coming to us forever. In the future, many of us we will get less financial help in old age, spend more of our savings to make up the difference and pay more in taxes for the privilege.

My plan is to put more money away, when I can, in savings accounts that are shielded from taxes or free from them entirely, like 529 college savings plans and Roth individual retirement accounts, and hope that the tax rules don’t somehow change midstream.

FEAR If you’re scared, allow yourself to imagine the worst possible outcome. For most of us, it’s running out of money. So before you make any big changes to your portfolio, follow this fear to its logical conclusion. What would have to happen for you to be truly penniless?

First, your investments would need to go to zero or be utterly ravaged by inflation. Social Security would have to cease to exist. Medicare would no longer pay for much, if anything. Medicaid would no longer pay for nursing home care for people without any other assets. And your family and friends would be unwilling to take you in or pitch in to help.

Once you realize how unlikely this combination is, call a timeout on any big decisions and let your rational mind settle back in. “Put some distance between impulse and action,” said Brad Klontz, a psychologist and consultant specializing in financial matters. He adds that this is particularly important for men, who tend to react more emotionally than women.

Simple things like intense exercise can help. Or, focus on a couple of financial tasks that you can control, like updating a will or crossing something else off that nagging list of financial to-dos.

GUILT Sometimes the most damaging feelings are less about your own financial standing and more about how you’ve failed or disappointed others.

Perhaps you couldn’t persuade your parents to scale back their stock exposure. Or you were too aggressive yourself with investing any college savings money you managed to put aside and are worried about saddling your child with student loan debt.

This is the worst kind of myopia, though. You are more than the sum of your family’s stock returns, and their returns are about much more than stocks.

Elderly relatives, for instance, will probably not see the same cuts to Social Security and Medicare that you will. And hopefully they also have at least some bonds or other holdings they can call on while waiting for stocks to recover. If they have a home that’s at least partly paid off, a reverse mortgage can help as a last resort measure, too. You can explain all of that and help them sort through it.

If you are still employed, your biggest asset is probably your future income stream. If you haven’t lost your job this week, then you still have that going for you and can put it to work helping your children when (and if) they truly need it.

BRAVADO If none of the above helps, it’s easy to fall prey to the damaging tendency to take drastic action.

Carl Richards, whose posts on our Bucks blog sum up complex emotions in deceptively simple sketches, refers to this as the need to do something heroic.

Kathleen Gurney, chief executive of the Financial Psychology Corporation, calls it the “manic response” that therapists look for and try to counteract. It’s the idea that going all in on gold will protect you, or that your Apple stock will, or foreign currencies or something else.

This sort of single-minded response has made some people rich over the years and allowed others to lead a worry-free retirement if they timed the markets right and died within a couple of decades.

But the risk of being wrong and living long is just too high for most people to make big bets like that today.

If you still feel the need to do something, consider this self-assessment test from Ken French, a Tuck School of Business professor and stock market expert, who offers it as a frame of reference and not as a prediction of short-term performance.

“Ask yourself how you are different from the market,” he said. “If you think you are particularly risk-averse relative to everyone else, then it makes perfect sense for you to sell.” Just don’t get in and repeat the cycle when things look as if they are turning up again.

“If you think you are more risk-tolerant, then maybe this is an opportunity for you to buy,” he added, noting that the market may pay a small premium to people willing to endure the gyrations. “If you’re not averse to that volatility, you are getting a higher expected return for a modest psychological burden.”

Article source:

Speak Your Mind