What happens when the market zooms higher and you’re on the sidelines? Or when the market tumbles and you’re fully, aggressively invested? For too many of us, times like that bring discouragement, regret, and second-guessing. “I’m such a lousy investor.” “I must be using the wrong strategy.”
We think and overthink, ruminate and re-ruminate. “What could I have done differently?” “What will it mean for all that I’m investing for?”
It’s time and emotional energy not at all well spent. In a recent post on his blog, A Teachable Moment, Tony Isola nailed it when he said, “Worry is our feeble attempt at controlling an uncontrollable future.”
In cautioning against such folly, Isola noted that (for most of us) our lives will span 4,000 weeks. Others have written that one of the most common regrets among the elderly is that they spent too much of their precious allotment of time worrying.
Investors are especially prone to worry. As a bull market surges higher, we wonder when the good times will end. And when the market is falling, we wonder how much worse it will get.
It leaves us trying to answer the unanswerable. “What if inflation comes in lower than forecast, or higher?” “What’s the Fed likely to do next and how will that impact markets?”
Soon enough, we find ourselves tweaking and fiddling, coming up with our own methods, our own madness. Only to discover that it isn’t so easy to go it alone.
Just look at what happened when the latest jobs report came in much stronger than expected. Had we dared to assume the markets would cheer such good news, our rational thinking would have been rewarded with…disappointment. The markets fell on the news.
For the worried investor, disappointment gives way to discouragement, regret, and second-guessing. And there the vicious cycle begins again — the overthinking and ruminating, the searching for answers, the tweaking and fiddling. Of course, the more we move away from an objective, rules-based process, the more our results depend on us. And that inevitably leads to stress and sleepless nights.
“The urge for certainty compounds suffering,” Isola cautions.
Who has time for all of that? How many of our 4,000 weeks are we willing to devote to such misery? How much of our emotional energy?
I have a suggestion: Let’s put off the old worried investor self and put on the new intentional investor self.
That means choosing — or recommitting to — a strategy that fits with our timeframe and temperament. And by temperament, I don’t just mean our ability to withstand a losing month or year. I also mean our willingness to do what it takes to stay in sync with the strategy we have chosen.
That means understanding enough about how the strategy works that we could explain it to a middle-schooler. It also means having a sense — a managed expectation — about how it is likely to perform under different conditions.
That means fully committing to our chosen strategy. Even when it doesn’t seem to be working. Even when we’re in a gold fund and see a headline that says this is no time for gold.
That means writing it down — the goal we’re pursuing with our portfolio, how we’re going about it and why, and what we’ll do (and not do) under various market conditions.
And it means tuning out the noise. We are certain to see headlines, overhear conversations, and come across social media posts all giving us the impression that there’s a better way than the way we have chosen. To think any of it means we should change course is to float in the sea, being tossed back and forth by the waves. To tune it out is to set the sail and stay the course as mature, committed, intentional investors.
To be sure, each year brings its own set of challenges. This year feels especially challenging. But so did 2020. And 2008. And…
When the next especially challenging year comes, that doesn’t mean it’s “different this time.” That means it’s time to remember we’re never going to get those 52 weeks back. As Tony Isola put it, “Don’t let time slip away from you. Unlike the stock market, your time will never make new highs.”
Let’s not waste our precious time with discouragement, regret, and second-guessing. Let’s choose and commit. Our portfolios will perform better, and we will certainly sleep better as well.