Don’t Panic when Investment Waters get Choppy

“Get me out of this market, now!” said the voicemail left by a client in September 2015, right after the stock market had suffered a 10 percent correction. I called him back to discuss his decision and to urge him to give it some time. While it doesn’t always happen this way, that particular time the market made it all back up over the next six weeks. It is in the nature of humans to worry about our investments. After all, that is the lifeline retirees have established to see them through to the end of their lives. Anything that disrupts that lifeline is to be worried about and avoided. So investors tend to establish what we call a “fixation level.” That is the amount of time they spend thinking about their investments. That leads to worrying about their investments, which then leads to their “quit rate,” or the amount their account value can shrink before they “quit” the market. While I don’t believe getting out of the market is necessarily a bad thing, getting out with no strategy for re-entry is. And most investors who panic out of their stock market holdings have no plans for re-entry. Years ago, financial blogger Josh Brown divulged a private conversation between himself and a former executive of a large mutual fund company. According to Brown, the company did a survey of its clients to try to devise a profile of its “best clients.” They just thought it’d be an interesting study to publish, and great intel to have internally. To their surprise, they found their best clients fell routinely and squarely into two categories: A) people who forgot entirely about having certain accounts; and B) dead people! Upon reckoning with these troublesome facts, the company declined to publish the study, ergo this revelation being confined to an offhanded, in-person remark from that former exec to Mr. Brown. In sum: Forgotten accounts and dead people’s accounts don’t attract fixation levels or quit rates of any kind, do they? In years like 2017, when the market was up across the board, with no 10 percent corrections along the way, it is easy to stay invested. But when the market turns volatile like it has this year, with some occasional big downturns, that confidence we have tends to melt away and is replaced by a fixation level that makes us question the decisions both we and our advisors are making. As advisors, part of our duty to our clients is to be emotionally strong, even when they aren’t. Whether or not our clients would think to characterize it that way, it’s a huge part of what we do. Sometimes we simply need to engage in a conversation with a client about all the myriad human frailties that exist for us all, and help our clients see past the recency bias and fixation level that occasionally invades all of our thinking. So the next time the investment waters get choppy, as they recently did, and you get concerned about your current strategy, have that conversation with your advisor. If you don’t have an advisor, find a certified financial planner at