As last year creaked and stumbled and groaned its way to a messy close, lots of investors were understandably spooked.
After one of the longest bull markets ever, 2018 was a rude and startling wake-up call. And at the very end of the year, the market had a pretty severe case of not knowing what it thought of the future.
A friend who’s an adviser at Fidelity Investments called me recently to say he has been hearing from many investors who fear a repeat of what happened to them in 2007 through 2009.
He asked for advice on how he can help restore some peace of mind to nervous investors.
I suggested he ask them a series of questions so they can get things off their chests and wrestle a bit with some of the issues. That’s likely to be more effective than a lecture that might or might not be relevant to them.
Since I retired as an investment adviser half a dozen years ago, I’ve continued to ask investors questions and help them find good answers.
If I could sit down with you individually, here are some of things I’d ask you.
1. What are the facts? (When you go to the doctor, the first thing that usually happens is getting blood pressure, etc.)
Specifically, what investment returns have you actually been achieving? Also, what returns have you achieved over the past five to 10 years?
My friend told me that typical accounts are down less than 5% this year.
The S&P 500 index
appreciated 8.3% a year for the past five calendar years and 13% for the past 10. The average large-cap blend fund appreciated 6.7% and 12% for the five-year and 10-year periods. (Returns are through Dec. 31, 2018.)
If your own returns are radically different from these, we could try to figure out why.
2. Here’s one that is certain to spark a good discussion: Who’s in control, your brain or your emotions? I suggested my adviser friend get a copy of Jason Zweig’s excellent little book “Your Money and Your Brain.”
Zweig shows how our emotions can take over, pushing rational decision-making aside. This may work fine when you’re facing an angry mama bear, but it’s a terrible way to navigate the sophisticated world of modern finance.
Even the best investment, in the hands of an emotional and irrational investor, can’t do its job.
3. When you think about your past investment decisions, which ones worked out well, and which ones didn’t? Why do think some worked and others didn’t?
This lets me get a handle on whether your successes and failures have come from the luck of the draw, from emotional reactions to the market, or from specific, conscious decisions.
4. Is your overall goal to beat the market? If your answer is yes, I’d ask you why. If that were really your objective, after a year in which stocks lost 30%, would you want to brag to your spouse or your friends that you lost “only” 20% of your portfolio?
If your answer is no, that’s good. Detailed studies of investment results consistently indicate that the vast majority of investors who try to beat the market wind up doing the opposite.
5. Is your overall goal to achieve the highest return while staying within your tolerance for risk? If yes, that’s a good thing…but only if you know what your risk tolerance really is.
When markets are rising or your money is safely in cash, it’s easy to believe you can comfortably tolerate losses in the bad times. But when your portfolio actually drops in value, it feels very different.
Determining your risk tolerance isn’t as simple as you think, and it’s one of the most important benefits you can get from having a good financial adviser.
For DIY investors, the best tool I know of is an article I wrote earlier this year for MarketWatch.
6. Is your overall goal to get an investment return that will meet your financial needs at the lowest possible risk? That’s also a very good objective, provided you know what your needs actually are.
You can get a fine start on those calculations from an article called “Twelve Numbers You Need to Know for Retirement.” If we were talking in person, going through this exercise could be very helpful. Doing it with a good adviser could make a huge impact on your financial future.
7. When do you expect to need to withdraw some or part of your portfolio? This will help determine how much risk you should take and how your portfolio should be invested.
If you expect to need the money within five years, you should NOT have most or all of it exposed to the risks of the stock market.
In general terms, the closer you are to needing the money, the less of your portfolio that should be in stock funds.
8. Have you thought seriously about how you will withdraw money when you retire, and how much? This discussion can lead you to answers to questions you didn’t even know you should be asking.
You can start thinking about this topic by checking out this article and the accompanying tables.
9. If you were not invested in the stock market and were waiting for it to “settle down,” I would ask “What are you waiting for? And how will you know it’s time to get in?”
I’ve yet to find any investor who can give me a convincing answer to that question.
The short-term and medium-term fluctuations of the market are unpredictable, and my timing advice is simple: Buy when you have the money available to invest, ideally using dollar-cost averaging, and sell when you need the money.
10. If you were a young investor, say in your 20s or 30s, I’d ask: Is it better to invest when prices have been going up, or when they have been going down?
Whatever your answer, this would let me introduce you to dollar-cost averaging (DCA). This is a practice that assures you will buy more shares when prices are lower and fewer shares when they’re higher.
11. Would you like to become a better investor? If your answer is yes, there are lots of good ways to educate yourself. Here are three:
•My e-book “101 Investment Decisions Guaranteed to Change Your Financial Future.”
•My book “Financial Fitness Forever.”
•What I regard as the best investment podcast of 2018, featuring Mark Hulbert: “Lessons learned from four decades of independently tracking investment advisory performance.”
Richard Buck contributed to this article.