Following a multi-year rally, 2015 wasn’t particularly successful in the global markets and, so far, the start of the new year hasn’t been any good either. The UK’s FTSE 100 index is below 6,000, lowest in more than three years. It’s times like this when various doomsday predictions start to appear, warning against events “worse than 2008”, using words such as “crash” and “meltdown”, and pointing to factors such as rising interest rates, growing political tensions, China, rising commodity prices, falling commodity prices and many others.
The truth is that no one really knows what is going to happen. Not the TV pundits, not the highly paid bank strategists and stock analysts, not even the Prime Minister or the Bank of England Governor.
That said, when you have significant part of your retirement pot invested, it is natural to feel uneasy when you hear such predictions, especially if they come from an analyst who got it right last time and correctly predicted some previous market event (he was lucky).
When the markets actually decline and you see your portfolio shrinking in real time, the concerns may become unbearable. Fear and greed get in charge, both at the same time. It is tempting to think about selling here and buying the stocks back when they are 20% lower a few months from now. Easy money, so it would seem. Nevertheless, that would be speculating, not investing. The problem with the financial industry (and the media) is that these two are confused all the time.
Time in the Market, Not Timing the Market
While some people have made money speculating, academic research as well as experiences of millions of investors have shown that it is a poor way to save for retirement. When a large number of people take different actions in the markets, some of them will be lucky and get it right purely due to statistics (luck). However, it is extremely difficult to repeat such success and consistently predict the market’s direction with any accuracy.
In the long run, the single thing which has the greatest effect on your return is time, not your ability to pick tops and bottoms. The longer you stay invested in the market, the more your wealth will grow. You just need the patience and ability to withstand the periods when markets fall, because eventually they will recover and exceed their previous highs.
Time Horizon and Risk Tolerance
The key decision to make is your risk tolerance – how volatile you allow your portfolio to be, which will determine your asset allocation. While personality and other personal specifics come into play, the main factor to determine your risk tolerance is your investment horizon. The longer it is, the more risk you can afford and the more volatility your portfolio can sustain. If you are in your 40’s and unlikely to need the money in the next 20 years, you should have most of your retirement pot in equities. If you are older and closer to retirement, your portfolio should probably be more conservative, because you might not have the time to wait until the markets recover from a possible crash. It is important to get the risk tolerance and the asset allocation right (an adviser can help with that) and stick with it.
How to Protect Your Portfolio from Yourself
Because the above is easier said than done, here are a few practical tips how to protect your retirement pot from your emotions and trading temptations:
1. Have a written, long-term investment plan. It is human nature to consider written rules somehow harder to break than those you just keep in your head. It is even better if you involve your adviser to help you create the plan. Not only is an adviser better qualified and more experienced in the investment process, but another person knowing your rules makes them even harder to break.
2. Do not check fund prices and the value of your portfolio every day. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t review your investments regularly. But the key is to make these revisions planned and controlled, rather than emotion-based. You will be less likely to make impulsive decisions, which more often than not are losing decisions.
3. Maintain an adequate cash reserve. This should be enough to meet any planned short-term expenditure and also provide a reserve for unexpected expenses. It will help you avoid the need to encash investments at a time when investment values are low.
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