How to Stay Sane In a Crazy Market

One week after the eleventh anniversary of the longest bull market in history, U.S. stocks suffered their biggest point-drop ever on Monday, March 16, with the bellwether Dow Jones Industrial Average falling nearly 3,000 points. In percentage terms, it was Wall Street's worst day since the "Black Monday" stock market crash of 1987, capping off what's been a neck-snapping, stomach-churning, headache-inducing few weeks for savers and investors as fears about the impact of the coronavirus on the U.S. and global economies disrupted stock prices worldwide.

The speed with which the market has plummeted from a record-high close on February 12 has been mind-numbing. Investors have veered wildly between extreme worry over the potential for the coronavirus to tip the country and the world into recession and cautious optimism that global leaders would come up with a unified plan to slow the spread of disease and contain the fallout. In recent days, as businesses across the country and world slow or shut down and the first signs of contraction are popping up in data, anxiety has clearly won out.

Even two emergency interest-rate cuts from the Federal Reserve didn't help—and with good reason. Says David Lebovitz, a global market strategist with J.P. Morgan Asset Management, "It's impossible for anyone to know whether the worst is over or there's more carnage to come."

That uncertainty about what the future holds is deeply unsettling, not just for Wall Street money managers and people in the 1 percent, but for regular folks too—people who are contributing to 401(k)s and IRAs for retirement, socking away money for their kids' education in college savings plans and building savings for other long-term goals.

"What makes this selloff different is that it feels more personal," says Blair DuQuesnay, an investment advisor and certified financial planner with Ritholtz Wealth Management. "It involves fear not just about your money but also fear about your health and the health of people you love. That adds an extra layer of anxiety."

If you're among those worrying—and who isn't worrying?—there are smart steps you can and should be taking now to keep your finances on track amid the the very real threat of an economic downturn. Here's what you need to know.

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. U.S. equities swung between gains and losses as investors digested fresh evidence of the widening coronavirus outbreak. Michael Nagle/Bloomberg/Getty

Get Perspective

The market's swift and dramatic decline over the past month or so may feel shocking but it didn't exactly come as a surprise to the pros. After 11 years of stocks going mostly up-up-up—this has been the longest bull market in history—financial advisors have been warning about the possibility of a sharp drop for some time. "It was a question of when prices would drop, not if," says Lebovitz. "COVID-19 just proved to be the catalyst."

As market routs go, this one is bad but still not close to the 50 percent or so decline experienced during the financial crisis. Over the past month, stocks have lost nearly 30 percent of their value, going back to the price levels last seen in early 2017, and erasing most of the gains of the Trump presidency.

Still, looking back over the past decade, most people who are investing for a long-term goal like retirement are still solidly ahead: A $10,000 investment in U.S. stocks in March of 2010, as measured by the S&P 500 index, would have more than doubled in value and be worth well over $21,000 today.

Even if the selloff continues, it would not be an abnormal development by historical standards. Between 1980 and 2019, according to Vanguard, there were eight bear markets, during which prices fell by 20 percent or more for at least two months. The typical bear lasts 10 months, it says, with average losses of nearly 36 percent.

"You have to be willing to take the body blows and the punches to the gut to earn the returns that stocks offer," DuQuesnay says. "The pain is the price of the gains."

Those gains, in the long run, are typically far greater than other investments offer and stocks are still the only asset to handily beat inflation over time. Since 1926, according to Ibbotson Associates, large-company stocks have returned about 10 percent a year on average, compared with just 5 percent for bonds and 3 percent for Treasury bills.

A longer view smoothes out the big price dips too: There has never been a 15-year period in which stocks have lost money. In short, stocks are the only investment over the long term that offers the growth potential you need to ensure your savings last a lifetime.

Stick With the Program

In order to earn the bigger returns that stocks offer, though, you have to steel yourself to ride out the periods when prices are slumping or, worse, plummeting. No one, not even the pros, can time buying and selling with any degree of accuracy.

"It is very difficult to figure out the tops and bottoms in financial markets," says Lebovitz. "Good days and bad days tend to be clustered together and what we've experienced recently is a classic example of that phenomenon."

The huge back-to-back point swings experienced over the past few weeks fit that pattern. That sort of thing, in direction if not magnitude, happens a lot.

According to research from J.P. Morgan Asset Management, for example, six of the 10 best days for stock prices over the past 20 years occurred within two weeks of the 10 worst days. Vanguard research shows a similar juxtaposition of good days in bad markets and bad days in good markets: Thirteen of the 20 best trading days have occurred in years when stocks ended up losing money, while nine of the 20 worst trading days happened in years when the market finished with positive returns. That makes it tough to figure out what the dominant trend is.

What's most critical to know: Whether stocks are in a bull or bear market, missing even a few of those "best" days can seriously damage your savings over the long term.

In fact, the J.P. Morgan research shows, if you missed the 10 best days for stocks over the 20-year period through the end of 2019—just 10 days out of the roughly 5,000 days over that time—your returns would have been cut in half: A $10,000 investment that would have been worth $32,421 if fully invested over those 20 years, would have been worth just $16,180 instead.

If you missed the best 20 days during that period, you'd have barely broken even. Missing the best 30 days meant you actually lost money—that $10,000 would have been worth just $6,749—and the losses got steeper from there.

The winning strategy, then, is to take a truly hands-off approach and stick with your stock holdings in good times and bad. Think of it this way, Lebovitz says: "Your investment portfolio is like a bar of soap. The more you touch it, the smaller it gets."

Stop Peeking

Of course, it's tough to think straight when the world around you seems fraught with peril and your health and savings are at stake. "The average investor loses 13 percent of their cognitive processing power during a period of financial duress," says psychologist Daniel Crosby, chief behavioral officer at Brinker Capital and author of The Laws of Wealth. "This is no time to be making financial decisions without your full complement of brainpower."

To counter behavioral traps—like making investment decisions during times of financial duress—start with a self-imposed ban on checking your 401(k) and other investment accounts. Removing the short-term damage from your sight makes your dwindling balances seem less vivid and reduces the chances you'll sell—and turn paper losses into real ones.

In a recent post on Morningstar, its director of personal finance Christine Benz also suggested mentally reframing the current market risks and your notion of what's safe by differentiating between volatility—that is, the short-term ups and downs in stock prices—and the threat of falling short of your savings goal because you didn't invest in assets that would earn the most in the long run. Benz wrote, "A real risk? Having to move in with your kids because you don't have enough money to live on your own. Volatility? Noise on the evening news."

If you do find your emotions getting the better of you, and you're tempted to get out of the stock market completely on the next big drop, that's a sign your investment mix is probably too volatile for your temperament. The solution? Avoid what Duquesnay calls the all-in, all-out mentality.

"Rather than selling everything, sell a small portion of your stock holdings," she advises. "Just executing that trade will relieve a lot of your anxiety because you'll have been proactive and you'll have a little less money tied up in stocks to worry about."

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Sold out sign is seen on a shelve of a supermarket. Sanitary gels and antibacterial hand wash products become out of stock in several supermarkets as the fear of coronavirus outbreak grows in New York, United States on March 4, 2020. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Don't View This As an Opportunity

"Buy on the dips" is a popular strategy on Wall Street— snapping up shares when a drop in in the market essentially put stocks on sale. But while stocks are certainly less expensive than they were a month ago, they're not exactly cheap yet, coming off a bull market run-up in prices that lasted more than a decade. And if the market keeps tumbling, you probably won't feel so good about a "bargain" that continues to fall in value.

Also, if you're putting money away regularly in a 401(k) or similar retirement savings plan at work, you're already buying on the dips; the same number of dollars gets you more shares now than it did in January and February. That's probably all the dipping you need.

As for profiting from the coronavirus scare directly, some Wall Streeters have been all over that, driving up shares of select healthcare companies and pharma outfits working on a vaccine, even as the rest of the market fell. Companies that make sanitizing products, facilitate working from home or provide certain at-home services have also done relatively well, either rising in price or falling less than the average stock.

Investment firm MKM Partners in Stamford, Connecticut even created what it calls a "Stay at Home" portfolio with suggestions of stocks it feels "may hold up better in the face of COVID-19." Among the 33 companies on the list: video game developer Activision Blizzard, recipe kit service Blue Apron, cleaning products supplier Clorox, food delivery service Grubhub, streaming service Netflix, home exercise bike maker Peloton and video conferencing provider Zoom Video Communications.

"We tried to identify what products/services/companies would potentially benefit in a world of quarantined individuals," chief market technician JC O'Hara said in an email to Newsweek. "What would people do if they were stuck inside all day?"

Sorry, but most of you should not be "all over" that.

Whatever the merits of the strategy or how these particular stocks ultimately fare, buying individual stocks and trying to capitalize on a trend hasn't proven to be a good strategy for most investors. You're typically better off keeping things simple and investing via index funds that track the performance of the general market rather than attempting to beat it. Over the past 15 years, nearly 88 percent of fund managers who actively picked stocks failed to beat their benchmark index.

Pump Up Your Savings

Itching to take more definitive action to protect your savings? Eager to regain a measure of control over your financial future in a market and world in which control feels increasingly elusive?

Here's the single best move you can make now: Boost the amount of money you're saving for long-term goals like retirement, instead of trying to pick the right stocks or figure out whether you should buy or sell.

If you're contributing, say, 6 percent of your pay now to your 401(k), go up to 7 percent immediately, then set a reminder to increase the amount by another percentage point a few months from now. Rinse and repeat until, ideally, you're setting aside at least 10 percent of your income for retirement.

The more years you have to invest, the bigger the multiplier effect this simple strategy has on your wealth—a greater impact, in the end, than how much (or little) you earn on your investments.

A study by the firm Pension Partners illustrates the power of saving just a percentage point or two more annually, looking at a hypothetical saver with an annual after-tax income of just under $50,000. If she saves 3 percent of her take-home pay a year and earns 6 percent on her investments (a reasonable assumption for an account with a diversified mix of stock and bond funds), she'll end up with about $117,000 after 30 years.

If she moves more of her money into stocks to earn higher returns, she might boost her average annual returns to, say, 8 percent. At the end of 30 years, she'd instead have nearly $168,000, 44 percent more than she'd have made at 6 percent—not too shabby.

But look what happens if that same investor raises her savings rate by two percentage points, instead of he returns. She still makes 6 percent a year on her money but she's now saving 5 percent of her net income instead of 3 percent—which, by the way, takes less than $20 a week more out of her paycheck. After 30 years, she'll end up with about $195,000, or 67 percent more money than in the original example. And she'll have achieved that boost to her wealth without taking on any additional market risk at all.

It's the rarest of things in life: an actual sure thing, a 100% guaranteed way to boost wealth that isn't subject to the whims and vagaries of market forces, looming pandemics or even our own emotions. These days, that sounds like a pretty sweet bet.

This story was updated on March 17, 2020.