Turbulent Times

In life we all experience times of trouble or difficulty.  In fact, life tends to cycle from good times to bad and back again.  But when rough times come, seldom is it a good thing to panic… to react by making decisions out of fear or emotion, or even worse, to run from the trouble at hand.  One thing I’ve learned recently is when life has it’s difficult times, we are wise to lean into those troubles and work through them.  And we aren’t successful in this by doing it alone… friends help, mentors, family and even God is there with us in the midst of our troubles.

Financially speaking, we must realize that our investments will also face turbulent times.  Just as in life, markets cycle and various investments go in and out of season.  The real question is when the volatile times come, how do we handle them?  A little encouragement is to avoid two common mistakes: don’t react on emotion, and don’t try to face these times alone.  When working with a financial advisor you aren’t alone.  They can provide objectivity on your portfolio and help you through choppy markets.

The other lesson learned is that we do eventually get through the rough waters (at some point). Of course, stock markets don’t recover overnight.  On average one 20% correction occurs every five years, but their recovery times vary.  According to Bloomberg, in 1974 the market suffered a -37% loss and took over five years to recover… but from 1981-1982 the market suffered a -25% correction and only took 83 days to recover.  And of course we are recently familiar with the corrections from 2000-2002 and also in 2008.

So what do we take away from this?  In the tough times don’t panic and avoid making quick, emotional decisions.  Remember the proverb that states, “The plan of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.”

Is this the Same Kind of Fire?

Being burned so badly in 2008-09, many investors are wondering why the markets are selling off and if this is a repeat of the last big correction. No one can say for sure, but this correction doesn’t feel like the one we experienced in ‘08. Here are a few factors we are hearing that may be the cause.

1) Necessary Correction due to large run-up the last 12-months. Since the March 9th low in 2009, the S&P 500 rebounded 79% through April 23rd high close in 2010. This is a pretty significant rebound, so profit-taking or some amount of correction should happen eventually as this is a natural cycle for markets. Interesting to note, since April 23rd the S&P 500 has corrected -12% through May 26th. (Sources: Morningstar, Inc. and Wall Street Journal)

2) Global Economic & Debt Issues (Euro-zone countries). In the news as of late are the government debt problems in Greece, with the possibility of spreading into Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy. Remember Greece is only approximately the size of the state of Indiana. Nevertheless up to this point Europe has not convinced the investment community that they will make the tough decisions and deal constructively with their serious government debt issues. If Europe gets it’s act together, we could see the markets improve overnight.

3) Possible Global economic slow-down affecting the U.S. Economy. We now live in a Global economy as many U.S. companies (Caterpillar, Proctor & Gamble, GE, IBM, Cisco, etc.) sell some of their goods and services outside the US. If these foreign customers buy less goods and services from us, then our economy could slow down again. This is why we are starting to hear news services talk of the possibility of a “Double-Dip” Recession. Hopefully Europe’s problems won’t be “systemic” and spread, but no one knows for sure at this point in time. Outside of this, the U.S. economy is slowly improving and appears to be able to weather Europe’s problems.

4) Geo-Political Issues. From the North Korean/South Korean conflicts and the continuing Iran/Israel nuclear saga create political uncertainty which can also revamp market volatility. Plus many legislative changes coming from the White House and Congress such as Finance Reform, Healthcare Reform, talks of Cap and Trade, etc. indicate to the markets that the government is growing in both control and debt. Until these issues settle down, potentially larger government can produce some degree of uncertainty and increased market volatility.

Remember the markets hate uncertainty. When uncertainty exists, markets tend to increase in volatility and money begins to move around, increased hedging can occur, and securities can become shorted, etc. All of this makes market direction almost impossible to determine on a short-term basis. This is why advisors strongly suggest that investors not get caught up in making knee-jerk changes to short-term corrections.

Hopefully this helps explain some of the reasons we are experiencing so much continued volatility in 2010. Though we may be wrong, what we are hearing is that this should not be a repeat of the market problems we experienced in 2008. We are still hopeful and believe markets will settle down at some point, usually when we least expect it. The advice we can give is that it’s usually best for an investor to develop good, long-term investment plans that can weather the many short-term bumps in the road. Quite possibly, if an investor can’t do this, they may need to avoid non-guaranteed investments (stocks, bonds, etc.) and settle for potentially much lower returns.

In the meantime consider these positives: declining interest rates (30-year mortgages are now below 5%), cheaper gas prices, as well as zero inflation. Hopefully some short-term positives will put more money in your wallet while you wait for your portfolio to grow again.

A Crash Overhang

One of the unfortunate hangovers from the 2008–‘09 market crash has been some investors continuing to try to “time” the market with their mutual funds. We continue to hear that small retail investors, and usually those without an investment advisor, have not completely returned to the stock market. Whether this is with their 401(k) plan or other investment portfolios, some investors have missed much of the recent recovery employing some unproven strategies.

Frankly I can understand their concerns and fears and their desire to be out when the next crash happens. The problem is there’s usually no one who knows exactly when the next correction will happen. Consider this… since March ’09 the stock market has grown back in spite of all the negatives we hear in the news today, while many have warned another correction is coming. Sometimes in the industry we hear this referred to as, “the market climbing a wall of worry.”

Remember that a strategy of “market timing” almost never works to improve one’s overall return when considering a full market cycle (from the peak, to the valley, and back to the peak again), particularly with mutual funds. This can be validated by third-party research and is why you hear most Investment Advisors discourage market timing. However, I must say moving out of the market can be an effective means of reducing fear.

I have found some of the confusion comes for personal investors as they have heard and read investment language (reduce stock exposure, increase cash position, expect a market pullback, stop-loss, limit order, etc.) that typically can be effective when trading individual stocks. Don’t confuse this with investing in mutual funds. According to Vanguard, mutual fund investing provides greater diversification as, “a single mutual fund most likely holds more securities than you could ever buy on your own. An advisor handles the fund’s investment management responsibilities, taking the burden off of you.” Therefore, remember that an actively managed fund manages within its prospectus objective in light of what is happening in the economy.

Also given the logic that investing in individual stocks can be significantly more risky than investing in stock mutual funds, it’s logical to conclude that you can also lose more in individual stocks. This contributes to why we saw many individual stocks decline much greater than stock mutual funds over the recent 2008-’09 market correction. Consider as Investorguide.com explains, “Earning a high level of return requires taking more risk, but taking more risk does not always equate to a higher return. No matter what you invest in there is an inherent level of risk associated with all investments.”

So in the end, unless there becomes a serious market correction, which doesn’t happen very often, mutual funds may not offer enough volatility to pay off using common timing strategies. In other words, mathematically it’s very difficult to make it work. As we have learned in the last correction, a market correction is not a clear signal that another major correction is around the corner.

In summary, there are some strategies that can help worried investors that are concerned of market risks. But quite frankly, and contrary to what you may hear, market timing usually does not improve the overall long-term return. And if you feel advisors are not forth coming about timing, ask your investment advisor if he “times” his or her mutual funds.