Q: The stock market is dropping, and all the talking heads on TV are talking about moving to cash. Should I sell my stocks?
A: I have been writing this column for ACEP Now for nearly five years. In that period, the most significant U.S. stock market downturn was a 10 percent drop in early 2016. As I write this in December 2018, the stock market is down 14 percent from its peak in mid-September. By the time you read this, the stock market may have completely recovered from that loss, partially recovered from that loss, or fallen even further. Just like you and everyone else, I have no reliable way of predicting the future.
Financial writers often use the terms “correction” for a stock market drop of 10 percent or more and “bear market” for a loss of 20 percent or more. An avid student of financial history knows that, on average, a correction occurs about once a year and a bear market occurs about once every three years. Thus, having the value of your stock portfolio drop should not surprise the informed investor. This is what stocks do, and it’s part of the reason they provide higher long-term returns than bonds or cash.
The volatility should be insignificant for the long-term investor, however, and if you are not investing for the long-term, you should not own stocks at all. Even a physician on the eve of retirement should be a long-term investor because some of the dollars saved for retirement will not be spent for two or even three more decades.
What you really care about as a stock investor is that the investment provides a solid return over the period you own it. So long as the return is good between the date you buy and the date you sell, the value at any time between those two dates is irrelevant to your financial goals.
Every investor is tempted to time the market, selling stocks when their value is high and buying them when their value is low. This is almost always a mistake. Timing the market successfully requires you to get both the exit and the reentry right and well enough to overcome the transaction and tax costs of the move. If you think you can predict future market movements, interest rate changes, and political events accurately, I suggest keeping a journal of your specific predictions for a year or two. If you are like most, you will quickly learn your crystal ball is cloudy. If you are not, perhaps a career change to hedge-fund management is in order.