Volatility is back. Just as many people were starting to think markets only ever move in one direction, the pendulum has swung the other way. Anxiety is a completely natural response to these events. Acting on those emotions, though, can end up doing us more harm than good.
There are a number of tidy-sounding theories about why markets have become more volatile. Among the issues frequently splashed across newspaper front pages: global growth fears, policy uncertainty, geopolitical risk, and even the Ebola virus.
In many cases, these issues are not new. The US Federal Reserve gave notice it was contemplating its exit from quantitative easing (an unconventional monetary policy used by central banks to stimulate the economy when standard monetary policy has become ineffective). Much of Europe has been struggling with sluggish growth or recession for years, and there are always geopolitical tensions somewhere.
In some ways, the increase in volatility could be just as much a reflection of the fact that volatility has been very low for some time. Markets do not move in one direction. If they did, there would be no return from investing in stocks and bonds. Stated another way: If volatility remained low forever, there would probably be more reason to worry.
For those still anxious, here are six simple truths to help you live with volatility:
1) Don’t make presumptions. Remember that markets are unpredictable and do not always react the way the experts predict they will. When central banks relaxed monetary policy during the crisis of 2008-09, many analysts warned of an inflation breakout. If anything, the reverse has been the case with central banks fretting about deflation.
2) Someone is buying. Quitting the equity market when prices are falling is like running away from a sale. While prices have been discounted to reflect higher risk, that’s another way of saying expected returns are higher. And while the media headlines proclaim that “investors are dumping stocks,” remember someone is buying them. Those people are often the long-term investors.
3) Market timing is hard. Recoveries can come just as quickly and just as violently as the prior correction. For instance, in March 2009—when market sentiment was at its worst—the S&P 500 turned and put in seven consecutive months of gains totaling almost 80%. This is a reminder of the dangers for long-term investors of turning paper losses into real ones and paying for the risk without waiting around for the recovery.
4) Never forget the power of diversification. While equity markets have turned rocky again, highly rated government bonds have flourished. This helps limit the damage to balanced fund investors. So diversification spreads risk and can lessen the bumps in the road.
5) Nothing lasts forever. Just as loading up on risk when prices are high can leave you exposed to a correction, dumping risk altogether when prices are low means you can miss the turn when it comes. As always in life, moderation is a good policy.
6) Discipline is rewarded. The market volatility is worrisome, no doubt. But through discipline, diversification, and understanding how markets work, the ride can be made bearable. At some point, value re-emerges, risk appetites reawaken, and for those who acknowledged their emotions without acting on them, relief replaces anxiety. Find a coach who can help you stay disciplined to reach your goals.
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