Is this a buying opportunity, or should I sell? What we know (and what we don’t)

By April 2, 2020 November 12th, 2020 No Comments

Everyone on the planet is impacted by COVID-19. Our hearts go out to all the sick and to those who have lost this fight and their families. We are extremely thankful to the brave health care workers who are fighting this battle on the front lines and will continue to fight to save lives during chaos. We will do everything we can to support you.

Every investor in the U.S. and abroad is asking the same question, Is this going to be a short bear market or a long brutal one? The truth is nobody knows. Trying to time the top or the bottom of any market repeatedly is literally impossible. History is littered with those lucky souls who have successfully done it once. Most of them spend the rest of their careers trying to replicate their feat, only to be disappointed repeatedly. When we are making investment decisions, we try not to focus on things that we can’t control, and we try to ignore things that don’t matter. Instead, we want to focus on the intersection of the things that matter and the things we can control. COVID-19’s impact on the market is beyond all of our control but, make no mistake, it matters. Trying to time the market is within our control, but ultimately there isn’t enough data to suggest it can be done reliably and thus it doesn’t matter.

History suggests that investors who have a diversified basket of stocks and other “Offense” assets have been rewarded if they hold for long-time periods. If investors bought after drawdowns of more than 20%, they have been rewarded more handsomely over time, even if they saw their value drop by another 20-40% before the bottom. Today’s market can best be summed up with this example: Imagine a farmer’s market where sellers outnumber the buyers by five to one, with an hour to go until the market closes. You want to be a buyer and enjoy the same high-quality food for less money. That’s why market prices are collapsing right now for all securities, even those of the highest quality. Institutions, especially those with too much debt or with investors who are asking for their money back, have no choice but to sell whatever they can at whatever price they can in order to raise cash. Buying into this type of forced selling has yielded positive returns throughout history. We have no idea where this market is going over the next few weeks nor, for that matter, over the next year. But we do know that investors are being paid a lot more to own stocks and corporate bonds today than they were a month ago.

In the spirit of focusing on what matters and what we can control, here are 11 things we do know:

1. Few have ended up regretting buying into a bear market too early.

(CLICK HERE for Ben Carlson’s analysis of buying into bear markets early.)

2. Nobody knows how far we will fall, not even Howard Marks.

(CLICK HERE for further reading on this topic by one of the world’s brightest investment minds.)

3. Don’t just do something for the sake of doing something.

(CLICK HERE for Vanguard founder John Bogle’s famous 2014 comments, “Don’t do something. Just stand there.”)

4. There are things to be done, like assess risk, rebalance portfolios, and tax loss harvest. We are working through those topics now for our clients.

(CLICK HERE for a quick blog entry on this topic.)

5. Financial Plan > Investment Portfolio.

An investment portfolio is not a financial plan; it’s simply a collection of securities. A plan encompasses risk, tax optimization, savings targets, rebalancing rules, and strategic and tactical asset allocation decisions. If you just have an investment portfolio you need a new adviser.

6. Too many people ended up with too much risk as a result of an 11-year bull market.


7. Sequence risk matters.

If you have a shorter time horizon, you need to have less risk than someone with a longer horizon. Too many retirees around the world are being forced to change their expectations of their retirement years; young folks have time on their side to make more, save more, and even buy into weak markets with fresh cash. (CLICK HERE)

8. The financial services industry needs help; we have far too many advisors and not enough advisers.

(CLICK HERE to read about the difference; hint: fiduciary.)

9. Buyer beware of the “have your cake and eat it too” products.

Investment and insurance products touting downside protection and offering guarantees will be more popular than hand sanitizer in late 2020. But most are overly complex and come with sky high commissions and fees that are often hidden. Make sure you talk to someone you trust before ever considering such a purchase.

10. In 5, 10, or 15 years, we’ll wish we’d invested more at some stage of this bear market

…and it will look obvious in the rear-view mirror. (CLICK HERE for Jason Zweig’s wonderful WSJ post on 3/20/2020 about hindsight bias.)

11. Tightening the belt during uncertainty is rarely regretted.

Some of this is being mandated (no dining out, no travel, etc.), but “a penny saved is a penny earned.”

A Toast: You are not alone. We are all in this together; the entire world is in this together. May there be silver linings that come from this tragedy, and may we come together as a community, a country, and a globe to fight this common enemy. Here’s to making this our finest hour.

(CLICK HERE for Morgan Housel’s wonderful perspective on “Common Enemies.”)