Shortly after the end of the 2007-2009 recession, a relative (between you and me, we’ll call him ScaredyPants) asked me to manage his money. He was seventy, widowed for many years, generally a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, and his portfolio was worth about a million bucks.
Eighty per cent of the portfolio was cash, the other twenty per cent was invested in one-year term deposits with the total portfolio earning less than 1.0%.
In 2010, inflation ran at 1.5%; in 2011, 3.0%. Meaning, as long as the rate of inflation exceeded investment return, ScaredyPants was losing money. But he was fine with the slight hit to his portfolio. Because after the Great Recession, ScaredyPants was terrified of losing money.
Today, more than eight years later, ScaredyPants asset allocation has not changed. Drawing seventy-five thousand a year for living expenses and to pay income taxes, having no revenue sources other than his portfolio and a small government pension worth about sixteen thousand annually, his liquid assets have dropped from a cool million to less than $500,000. At this rate, ScaredyPants will be broke if and when he reaches the age of eighty-five. Yet, he refuses to change his portfolio – such is the debilitating grip of fear.
It is perfectly natural to be fearful. When fear comes upon you, embrace it, watch what is happening to your physical body, how it tightens. Watch what is happening to your thoughts, how they turn cloudy and negative. And wait for the feeling of fear to pass, because it always passes. And once fear passes, only then may you make wise decisions.
Sidestepping the Groove
Here’s the thing about fear: it stops us from getting to that really groovy place where we want to dance and sing and shake it all out because we feel financially independent and free!
As investors, as managers of our own money, we don’t have a whole lot of constructive use for fear. Rather, fear is a destructive emotional anchor, driving us to stuff money under the proverbial mattress, miss out on investment opportunities, let cash sit in a bank savings account earning next to nothing, or invest in ultra-safe-barely-pays-any-interest federal government bonds. All of which are surefire ways to NOT walk the path toward financial freedom.
No one enjoys lingering in a state of fear or high anxiety. Still, it happens to all of us because we’re biologically wired this way: fear being an evolutionary mechanism designed to (1) signal danger, threat or conflict, and then (2) activate an adaptive response.
Okay, so we’re locked into human biology. But for the purpose of retiring early AND not running out of money before reaching our final resting place, isn’t it possible for savers and investors to flip the fear off switch?
‘Hey, smart guy, look around. The world is crazier than ever; the reasons for being fearful are endless!’
I know, I get it, you don’t have to look too hard to find one geopolitical crisis or another that makes you want to stockpile supplies and hide out in a desert bunker. On top of this, there are your personal financial circumstances, be it shaky job security, unexpected expenses, or any other uncertainty that holds you back from contributing more to investments.
But the thing is, running away from financial markets is not the solution to being the CEO of your own show one day. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. If you let fear stop you from investing, then financial independence will remain a pipe dream.
Shift Your Perspective
To manage fear, to build wealth, shift your take on events. For example, when ScaredyPants thought of investing in the stock market, all he could see was the risk of loss. Well, there’s also the other side of the coin, the risk of gain, especially for long-term investors.
Granted, ScaredyPants represents an extreme example. For many others, risk is acceptable when it seems there is little chance of loss. So … when does the stock market offer such conditions? Well, when stock prices are going up, positive vibes fill the media, and fear has been relegated to the backseat. But, but, but … this is the exact wrong time to invest!
You want to invest when fear is in the air, when stock values are depressed and ON SALE.
But this is not what happens for most investors. Instead, time and time and time again, people do the exact opposite of what should be done; they buy high (when fear has receded) and sell low (when fear is ascending).
Your path to financial freedom would be that much shorter if you could shift perspective, and see depressed prices as actually presenting less risk, and potentially greater reward.
Easier Said, But Definitely Do-Able
Here’s BuddhaMoney’s guide to what needs to be done to address your fears, and maximize portfolio performance:
- Diversify. You’ve heard it so often that maybe you tune it out: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Because a diverse pool of assets goes a long way to reducing fears, minimizing risk, and lessening major moves in portfolio value.
What kind of risk gives rise to fear? Market performance, economy performance, interest rates, inflation, and longevity (the possibility that you will outlive your money). To alleviate fear (and ulcers) caused by stock market value gyrations, hold some bonds. If you think the domestic economy is about to tank, buy foreign securities. If the bull market is slowing and you’re fearful of an impending crash, increase your cash position.
- Balance and ReBalance. Naturally, given that you’re a BuddhaMoney devotee, you have an investment plan setting out how much money is allocated to certain assets. For example, 60% stocks, 30% bonds and 10% cash, invested in domestic and foreign securities, exchange traded funds (ETF) and/or individual securities.
Well, if your stocks have increased in value and now make up 70% of your portfolio, then its time to rebalance, to sell 10% of the stock holdings (sell the winners; and when you sell at the ‘high’ price, it sure feels good) and allocate the proceeds to bonds and/or cash. Why do this? Because rebalancing reduces risk, reduces those situations where you feel fearful, and when you have a thoughtful investment plan in place its best to stick to that plan to achieve future goals.
- Pay Less Attention
The stock market is a roller coaster. And the ride makes a whole lot of folks queasy. But by no means does that mean you should jump off. Instead, tweak your behavior: stop checking prices every day or even every week. Because it’s dangerous for your health. When your hyper-focused on daily stock prices, you become more and more emotionally invested in both small and large movements. In turn, this may cause you to forget your long term goals and make poor decisions based on short term price swings.
- Keep Costs Down
Managing costs contributes to minimizing financial risk, i.e., the lower your investment costs, the more money in your pocket.
- Recognize Noise For What It Is
Media knows that we read what we connect with, and most often that connection is on an emotional level. When the stories lean negative, this may affect our decision-making, and not necessarily for the better. So don’t let the stories suck you in and throw your well thought out plan off course. Because your financial plans, your financial future, should not be adjusted based on media stories or even what you discuss with friends. Instead, your plans should be based exclusively on your current needs, short, medium and long-term goals, and tolerance for risk.
Sure, we’re all susceptible to fear. But when you’re able to harness that fear, you sure do stack the odds in your favor that financial independence will be reached according to your plan.