I'm ashamed to say that I have found myself checking my retirement plan account balance way too often this month ... sometimes as often as once a day. How disgusting is this habit? Well, studies indicate that the more a person checks their investments, the worse their results will be.
Fundamentally, the theory is that is the "risk premium" we earn from taking risk is what generates higher investment returns over time.
For most amateur investors, the best way to come to terms with risk is to set it and forget it. Constantly checking our account balance is only reinforcing our fears.
A shift toward lower-risk investments (even cash) is inevitable, and we have now jeopardized what would have been better long-term investment gains.
So, remove your retirement accounts from your "favorites" and "bookmarks." In the old days, when I could see that the bulk of my 401(k) money was to be deposited sometime in the future, I never had to worry much about downdrafts in the market.
What little I had didn't matter, and future contributions would benefit from market plunges. If mutual funds dropped in value, those inbound contributions of the same regular dollar amounts were just buying more shares at those lower prices. As goofy as it sounds, most of us still accumulating should pray that the market plunges periodically.
Well, that was then. This is now. Looking at less than 10 more years of work, my current account balance is now far larger than the projected total value of my future contributions.
A market behaving as erratically as ours has since early November gets my attention for reasons that never mattered years ago. What amazes me is the extent to which reputedly smart people can have such varying views on what lies in store for us as investors.
To take some simple examples, Bob Brinker, the sage of market timers, continues to be comfortable with a fully invested position. Richard Young, another respected investment newsletter writer, also points out a multitude of technical reasons for why the market continues to be our best investment option and that the recent volatility offers some buying opportunities. So does the Dow Theory Forecaster.
Basically, stocks are still a good investment if you assume that corporate profits will continue to rise. More arcane "bullish" signs can be counterintuitive. Short-selling (or betting that the market will drop) is at an all-time high right now, but this is viewed by technical analysts as being a bullish sign because short sellers as a group are generally wrong. And so on.
Others such as the Shepherd Investment Strategist cite all the reasons for why we are staring down the barrel of a gun. For example, an inverted yield curve (short-term interest higher than long-term interest) has always been a precursor of a following recession.
Since the market rises on a wall of worry, I find myself building mine brick by brick. Since none of these financial newsletters offer the right answer with any degree of certainty, I just need to build a portfolio that will benefit from, or survive, any market condition within reason.
A Monte Carlo simulation is a computerized matrix of all financial events weighted by their probability and the probability that they will happen simultaneously to varying degrees.
Over the next 10 years, an 80 percent and 20 percent mix of stocks and bonds respectively has a median expected return of 8.6 percent. My existing 80/20 account will double in 8.4 years at that rate.
On the downside, there is a 10 percent chance that I could wind up in 10 years with only 14 percent more money than I have today (ignoring any future contributions.)
On the bright side, there is also a 10 percent chance that I could wind up with seven times my current balance.
This would happen if I were lucky enough to experience a 20 percent average annual return. Sound unlikely? From 1988 to 1999, the S&P 500 index managed to do just that.
As investors, we need to understand that we're "in the system -- and the system defies rational thinking." Our only option is to anticipate the "walls of worry" as delineated by the simulation and come to terms with a life lead somewhere within them. The alternative is to live like paupers and stuff every extra cent into cash -- a likely eventual demand for those who check their accounts every day.