Selling is the Easy Part

From the highs reached in early spring, the S&P 500 is now down roughly 12%. International stocks (MSCI EAFE) and small caps (Russell 2000) are down even more, as both have fallen roughly 17% from their 52-week highs.

These types of losses are the cost of doing business in the stock market, but drawdowns always keep things interesting because emotions start to run higher than usual. People start to pay attention to their portfolios when losses begin to pile up.

At this point, it’s easy to sell stocks because for many selling is the easy part of the equation. There’s always a good reason to sell. Studies show that most investors are actually able to diligently follow an established set of rules when making the sell decision. It’s getting back in and buying after the fact that becomes really difficult because cash quickly turns into an investor’s security blanket.

One of the biggest reasons for this is because people’s perception of risk is constantly changing. Wes Gray from Alpha Architect covered the idea behind this in a recent post:

Consider the concept of dynamic risk aversion, which is the idea that human beings don’t stick to a set risk/reward behavior—their appetite for risk can change depending on their recent experience… As market prices drop below the twenty percent threshold, an economist assumes that the new price is a bargain. Expected returns have gone up after prices have moved down, while volatility and risk aversion are assumed to be relatively constant

But this doesn’t happen. Stocks can—and have—gone down over fifty percent, and these movements are much more volatile than the underlying dividends and cash flows of the stocks they represent! Remember 2008/2009? How many investors swooped in to buy value versus threw the baby out with the bathwater and kept selling? …

One approach to understanding this puzzle is by challenging the assumption that investors maintain a constant aversion to risk. Consider the possibility that investors change their view on risk after a steep drawdown (i.e., they just lived through an earthquake). Even though expected returns go up dramatically, risk aversion shoots up dramatically as well.

I’m not saying the pain is over in the stock market and the coast is clear. That’s certainly a possibility, but volatility and losses have a tendency to lead to more volatility and losses in something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our ever-changing perception of risk shows that stocks can always fall further than most would assume to be rational (same thing works on the upside as well).

During a market correction you’ll hear plenty of market aphorisms or advice being thrown around:

Cut your losses quickly.

Sell the rips and buy the dips.

Don’t try to catch a falling knife.

Buy when there’s blood in the streets.

Be greedy when others are fearful.

Think long-term.

These sayings all make for nice soundbites. Some may even turn out to be correct depending on how things play out. But they don’t help people make actual portfolio decisions. There’s much more that goes into a legitimate investment process than catch phrases.

The way I see it there are a few different different options investors have in order to deal with market corrections.

  1. Implement a strategic, diversified asset allocation approach that balances your ability, willingness and need to take risk with your long-term goals and time horizon.
  2. Implement a disciplined, rules-based approach to buy and sell at pre-determined levels or triggers.
  3. Follow the investment process you have set up in advance that takes into account your personality, knowledge of the markets and ability to stick with the plan.
  4. Panic and sell after everyone else has.
  5. Don’t have a plan in place and just wing it.
  6. Listen to whatever billionaire hedge fund manager is giving their latest macro outlook and follow what they say is going to happen.

Options 4-6 are usually what actually ends up happening with many investors as they allow their emotions to dictate their portfolio decisions in heat of the moment. Options 1-3 are much more reasonable and make a lot of sense. None of them are perfect, but the goal when creating a portfolio is not to be perfect. The goal should be to survive these types of markets with minimal mistakes and unforced errors.

Here’s a video I did with CNBC last week with more on this topic:
Keep Cool During Correction (CNBC)

How Volatility Affects Our Brains (Alpha Architect)

Further Reading:
The Psychology of Sitting in Cash
Things People Say During a Market Correction

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  1. Here to Learn commented on Sep 30

    “One approach to understanding this puzzle is by challenging the assumption that investors maintain a constant aversion to risk. Consider the possibility that investors change their view on risk after a steep drawdown (i.e., they just lived through an earthquake). ”
    If an investor changes their view on risk after a steep drawdown, doesn’t that just mean they had a poor view on risk beforehand? It frustrates me that the concept of risk is typically only realized by investors on the downside. A lot of investors don’t say that their portfolio has gone up too much, too quickly and they need to sell because of risk, but when the market reverses and portfolios drop too much, too quickly, many investors feel a need to sell. Everyone says they have the stomach to ride through a downturn, until we are actually in one.

    • Ben commented on Sep 30

      Unfortunately it’s true of many investors. Expected returns go up as stock prices go down but the counterintuitive feelings of fear are difficult to avoid. Strange, but true that many investors are more comfortable buying after stocks have risen and selling after they have fallen.

      • John Thees commented on Sep 30

        And they should be doing exactly the opposite.

  2. John Thees commented on Sep 30

    These rules have worked well for me and I recommend them to your readers —

    If you are young and accumulating wealth by investing regularly in a retirement or savings account with a long time (5 years or longer) until you will need the money, DO NOTHING. While the market is falling and down you are buying more shares per dollar than you are when the market is rising and up, and those shares will rise when the market next goes up. Keep in mind that past history suggests that markets fall and remain down for periods of 8 – 24 months and rise and remain up for periods of 4 – 8 years.

    If, as I am, you are close to or in the retirement, when the market is up and setting new record highs, sell a small amount of shares each time the market hits a new high and put that money aside in an all cash cache. Then, when the market falls 20% or more from the latest record high, use the cash you have built up in the all cash cache to slowly and ratably buy back into the market over a period of 12 – 24 months.

    • Ben commented on Sep 30

      And I think the basic point most people miss is the importance of just having any plan in the first place.

      • John Thees commented on Sep 30

        You are absolutely right about that.

  3. 10 Thursday AM Reads | The Big Picture commented on Oct 01

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