Here we go again. Investors had clearly been lulled into complacency by the seemingly unidirectional US stock market. And how can we blame them? It had been over 550 trading days since the S&P 500 index had experienced a daily decline of 5 percent or more. For some, that's practically an investing lifetime.
This past week, however, has violently illustrated that markets can also go down, reminded us that investing is in fact not easy, and reminded us sometimes it's definitely not fun.
It sure is interesting how many of us, probably myself included, still harbor some residual financial PTSD from the 2008-2009 crisis and how quickly the conversation goes from, “Should we be more aggressive?” to, “Is this the end?” The answer to both questions, of course, is no.
On the “should we be more aggressive” debate, in my opinion, record-breaking unidirectional markets can be just as dangerous to savers and investors as market corrections and declines. Do I believe investment risk tolerance is pliable? Yes, of course, we all feel bolder as investors when the portfolio is rising every day, and less bold when the market is violently declining day after day. The real challenge, however, is observing this variable boldness in ourselves, understanding it and then acting in counterbalance to it.
The time to sell is when we feel perhaps best about the portfolio, the time to hold is when the market’s violent declines defy reason, making logical decision nearly impossible, and the time to buy is when the hour is darkest. Easy to write in a newspaper column, extremely difficult to execute in the real world, even for those of us who do it for a living.
Then there is the other question, “Is this the end”? It's OK to admit this question is still percolating deep inside ourselves. While the 2008 financial crisis was almost 10 years ago, the gold commercials and cryptocurrency true believers have kept the idea fresh in our minds. The driver of the crisis seemed almost existential in nature; this type of event does not easily leave the psyche.
So it's important to understand the likely driver of this past week’s fireworks, which is that on the economic front things are getting better, much better, and the stock market was finally forced to confront the idea that inflation, and as a result interest rates, are likely and finally rising, maybe this time for good.
Just like the volatility and declines accompanying other realizations of this type, such as the 2013 taper tantrum, when investors are forced to confront the arrival of the inevitable trend of rising interest rates, volatility is the result, and as Master Yoda would say, "a healthy result it is."
While I have been doing this investing thing for what to me seems like a really long time, I have no crystal ball. Over the past 25 years, I have learned, however, that bear markets tend to be driven by recessions and expectations of recessions.
I’ve also learned more benign and yes, healthy, stock market corrections tend to be driven more by financial concerns such as rising interest rates, inflation surprises, and even regime changes at the Fed, which we also have going on right now. To me, the present situation feels like the latter, but it doesn’t make it any less scary.
Now that we’re all awake, let's work hard to make the best decisions that we can.