The Secret to Braving a Wild Market
For most of the past decade, investing has required almost no courage at all. That may well be changing.
For most of the past decade, investing has required almost no courage at all. That may well be changing.
In the fall of 1939, just after Adolf Hitler’s forces blasted into Poland and plunged the world into war, a young man from a small town in Tennessee instructed his broker to buy US$100 worth of every stock trading on a major U.S. exchange for less than $1 per share.
His broker reported back that he’d bought a sliver of every company trading under $1 that wasn’t bankrupt. “No, no,” exclaimed the client, “I want them all. Every last one, bankrupt or not.” He ended up with 104 companies, 34 of them in bankruptcy.
The customer was named John Templeton. At the tender age of 26, he had to borrow $10,000—more than $200,000 today—to finance his courage.
Mr. Templeton died in 2008, but in December 1989, I interviewed him at his home in the Caribbean. I asked how he had felt when he bought those stocks in 1939.
“I regarded my own fear as a signal of how dire things were,” said Mr. Templeton, a deeply religious man. “I wasn’t sure they wouldn’t get worse, and in fact they did. But I was quite sure we were close to the point of maximum pessimism. And if things got much worse, then civilization itself would not survive—which I didn’t think the Lord would allow to happen.”
The next year, France fell; in 1941 came Pearl Harbor; in 1942, the Nazis were rolling across Russia. Mr. Templeton held on. He finally sold in 1944, after five of the most frightening years in modern history. He made a profit on 100 out of the 104 stocks, more than quadrupling his money.
Mr. Templeton went on to become one of the most successful money managers of all time. The way he positioned his portfolio for a world at war is a reminder that great investors possess seven cardinal virtues: curiosity, scepticism, discipline, independence, humility, patience and—above all—courage.
It would be absurd and offensive to suggest that investing ever requires the kind of courage Ukrainians are displaying as they fight to the death to defend their homeland. But, for most of the past decade or more, investing has required almost no courage at all, and that may well be changing.
Inflation rose to a 7.9% annual rate last month, the highest since 1982, and some analysts think oil prices could hit $200 a barrel.
In early March, Peter Berezin, chief global strategist at BCA Research in Montreal, put the odds of a “civilization-ending global nuclear war” in the next year at an “uncomfortably high 10%.”
In another sign of the times, a 22-year-old visitor to the Bogleheads investing forum on Reddit asked plaintively this week: “I can’t get over the thought that by the age of 60 will earth still be livable? Should I be using [my savings for retirement] somewhere else and live in the ‘now’?”
Yet the S&P 500 has lost less than 1% since Feb. 24, the day Russia launched its onslaught. Over the same period, according to FactSet, more than $770 million in new money has flowed into ARK Innovation, the exchange-traded fund run by aggressive-growth investor Cathie Wood.
That’s a familiar pattern. On Oct. 26, 1962, near the peak of the Cuban missile crisis, The Wall Street Journal reported that “If it doesn’t end in nuclear war, the Cuban crisis could give the U.S. economy an unexpected lift and maybe even postpone a recession.”
From their high in mid-October 1962, U.S. stocks fell only 7% even as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.
Nevertheless, a grim era for investing was not far off, in which stocks went nowhere and inflation raged. Had you invested $1,000 in large U.S. stocks at the beginning of 1966, by September 1974 it would have been worth less than $580 after inflation, according to Morningstar. You wouldn’t have stayed in the black, after inflation, until the end of 1982.
That shows two things.
First, glaringly obvious big fears, like the risk of nuclear war, can blind investors to insidious but more likely dangers, like the ravages of inflation.
Second, investors need not only the courage to act, but the courage not to act—the courage to resist. By the early 1980s, countless investors had given up on stocks, while many others had been hoodwinked by brokers into buying limited partnerships and other “alternative” investments that wiped out their wealth.
If it feels brave to you to rush out and buy energy stocks, you’re kidding yourself; that would have been courageous in April 2020, when oil prices hit their all-time low. Now, it’s a consensus trade. Courage isn’t doing the easy thing; it’s doing the hard thing.
Making a courageous investment “gives you that awful feeling you get in the pit of the stomach when you’re afraid you’re throwing good money after bad,” says investor and financial historian William Bernstein of Efficient Frontier Advisors in Eastford, Conn.
You can be pretty sure you’re manifesting courage as an investor when you listen to what your gut tells you—and then do the opposite.
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: March 11, 2022.
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Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Investors are taming impulsive money moves by adding a little friction to financial transactions
To break the day-trading habit that cost him friendships and sleep, crypto fund manager Thomas Meenink first tried meditation and cycling. They proved no substitute for the high he got scrolling through investing forums, he said.
Instead, he took a digital breath. He installed software that imposed a 20-second delay whenever he tried to open CoinStats or Coinbase.
Twenty seconds might not seem like much, but feels excruciating in smartphone time, he said. As a result, he checks his accounts 60% less.
“I have to consciously make an effort to go look at stuff that I actually want to know instead of scrolling through feeds and endless conversations about stuff that is actually not very useful,” he said.
More people are adding friction to curb all types of impulsive behaviour. App-limiting services such as One Sec and Opal were originally designed to help users cut back on social-media scrolling.
Now, they are being put to personal-finance use by individuals and some banking and investing platforms. On One Sec, the number of customers using the app to add a delay to trading or banking apps more than quintupled between 2021 and 2022. Opal says roughly 5% of its 100,000 active users rely on the app to help spend less time on finance apps, and 22% use it to block shopping apps such as Amazon.com Inc.
Economic researchers and psychologists say introducing friction into more apps can help people act in their own best interests. Whether we are trading or scrolling social media, the impulsive, automatic decision-making parts of our brains tend to win out over our more measured critical thinking when we use our smartphones, said Ankit Kalda, a finance professor at Indiana University who has studied the impact of mobile trading apps on investor behaviour.
His 2021 study tracked the behaviour of investors on different platforms over seven years and found that experienced day traders made more frequent, riskier bets and generated worse returns when using a smartphone than when using a desktop trading tool.
Most financial-technology innovation over the past decade focused on reducing the friction of moving money around to enable faster and more seamless transactions. Apps such as Venmo made it easier to pay the babysitter or split a bill with friends, and digital brokerages such as Robinhood streamlined mobile trading of stocks and crypto.
These innovations often lead customers to trade or buy more to the benefit of investing and finance platforms. But now, some customers are finding ways to slow the process. Meanwhile, some companies are experimenting with ways to create speed bumps to protect users from their own worst instincts.
When investing app Stash launched retirement accounts for customers in 2017, its customer-service representatives were flooded with calls from panicked customers who moved quickly to open up IRAs without understanding there would be penalties for early withdrawals. Stash funded the accounts in milliseconds once a customer opted in, said co-founder Ed Robinson.
So to reduce the number of IRAs funded on impulse, the company added a fake loading page with additional education screens to extend the product’s onboarding process to about 20 seconds. The change led to lower call-centre volume and a higher rate of customers deciding to keep the accounts funded.
“It’s still relatively quick,” Mr. Robinson said, but those extra steps “allow your brain to catch up.”
Some big financial decisions such as applying for a mortgage or saving for retirement can benefit from these speed bumps, according to ReD Associates, a consulting firm that specialises in using anthropological research to inform design of financial products and other services. More companies are starting to realise they can actually improve customer experiences by slowing things down, said Mikkel Krenchel, a partner at the firm.
“This idea of looking for sustainable behaviour, as opposed to just maximal behaviour is probably the mind-set that firms will try to adopt,” he said.
Slowing down processing times can help build trust, said Chianoo Adrian, a managing director at Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America. When the money manager launched its online retirement checkup tool last year, customers were initially unsettled by how fast the website estimated their projected lifetime incomes.
“We got some feedback during our testing that individuals would say ‘Well, how did you know that already? Are you sure you took in all my responses?’ ” she said. The company found that the delay increased credibility with customers, she added.
For others, a delay might not be enough to break undesirable habits.
More people have been seeking treatment for day-trading addictions in recent years, said Lin Sternlicht, co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist, who has seen an increase in cases since the start of the pandemic.
“By the time individuals seek out professional help they are usually experiencing a crisis, and there is often pressure to seek help from a loved one,” she said.
She recommends people who believe they might have a day-trading problem unsubscribe from notifications and emails from related companies and change the color scheme on the trading apps to grayscale, which has been found to make devices less addictive. In extreme cases, people might want to consider deleting apps entirely.
For Perjan Duro, an app developer in Berlin, a 20-second delay wasn’t enough. A few months after he installed One Sec, he went a step further and deleted the app for his retirement account.
“If you don’t have it on your phone, [that] helps you avoid that bad decision,” he said.
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