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Q: I've been crushed -- financially and emotionally. Talk me off the ledge!
I've lost more than half of my savings in the stock market. And just when I thought things were getting better, it got even worse. I don't think I have the energy to get back on the horse this time. What can I do but throw in the towel? -- Signed, Down and downerer
A: By golly, get up, dust off the rubble, and get right back on that horse, li'l buckaroo!
No go? I'm not surprised. That's because there are no words of wisdom that will magically snap you out of the finance-fueled emotional funk you're in.
What now? The answer you seek lies within you.
The answer lies within? Are you kidding?
I know that sounds like the kind of advice that's typically delivered with a cup of herbal tea accompanied by wind chimes and pan flute music. Or in a Yoda voice. But I'm serious.
It all comes down to resilience -- the ability to adapt to adverse situations as they arise and to bounce back afterward. (Feel free to replace "adverse situations" with "soul-crushing stock market losses.")
Resilience is a trait that, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), we all possess -- the meek and the mighty alike. We are an exceptionally resilient species, a fact proven over and over in our history books and in our willingness to suffer through daily rush-hour commutes. We survive and we go on to thrive. That's how we roll.
But in the face of unrelenting negative experiences, it's normal to find it more difficult to bounce back. These days, we could all use some direction on how to get back our sea legs.
A refresher course on resilience
Although we all posses a certain amount of natural adaptability, it is possible to become more resilient -- to better equip ourselves to adapt to life-changing situations (e.g. postponed retirement or temporary job loss). "[Resilience] involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone."
On its website, the APA outlines 10 ways to build resilience. But I've adapted the five which best relate to individual investors:
1. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. "You can't change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events," says the APA. The economy imploded and it's not your fault. (If it is, may I have a word in private, please?) So instead of dwelling on everything that went wrong because of the crisis, focus on what you can do to make things go right in the future.
2. Accept that change is a part of living. We made plans (to retire, send kids to college, go on a cruise, etc.) and those plans have been foiled. It happens, so we need to accept that and move on. Here, again, look for opportunity. Right now we may very well be in the midst of the best investing opportunity in 35 years. The pressures on institutional investors, hedge funds, and companies themselves have created artificially deflated prices for some very solid companies. (More on that in a moment.)
3. Come up with realistic goals and take small steps to move toward achieving them. If you try to take on too much (e.g. make up all your losses in a week of frenzied day trading) you'll quickly get burned -- or burned out. Instead map out the small "to dos" that lead up to the big "Tah-dahs!" and make those your goals.
4. Take decisive actions. In other words, do rather than stew. Your problems aren't just going to disappear if you ignore them. When you start to actually do the things you need to get back on your feet, the momentum builds (right along with your confidence!). A related investing strategy we like is to dollar-cost-average your way back into the market. It allows you to rebuild your nest egg while smoothing out your exposure to volatility.
5. Keep things in perspective. Even better, keep things in long-term perspective. Countless studies show that we over-weight recent events when we make decisions that have long-term consequences. CNBC doesn't exactly put anyone in the long-haul frame of mind. So turn it off and tune out everything else that encourages investor myopia. (Here are some other ways to rein in your caveman brain.) If you need something to obsess over, how about Warren Buffett? You could do a lot worse than studying the every move of this master investor.
Finding stocks that won't crumble under pressure
Buoyancy isn't just something to develop in yourself. The fate of the troubled companies in our portfolios will be determined by their ability to adapt to the current climate and how quickly they are able to bounce back.
Separating the resilient from the rest needn't be a demanding exercise. Some stocks are simply doomed. Telltale signs include the propensity to burn through cash, a weighty debt load on the balance sheet, and inadequate cash reserves. Oh, and being in the auto or financial industries. It's unlikely that General Motors (NYSE: GM ) will bounce back from its nearly seven-decade low any time soon.
You can also look back at past times of crisis and see which stocks survive recessions. Think utilities like Centerpoint Energy (NYSE: CNP ) , consumer staples makers like Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) , and market stalwarts like Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) . Many of these have the added benefit of worldwide business exposure.
On the other hand, financial stocks -- a traditional defensive play -- are hardly safe harbors these days. And even a big gun like General Electric (NYSE: GE ) isn't automatically a no-brainer bet, given its exposure to GE Capital, the loss of its AAA credit rating and its slashed dividends.
No doubt some companies will surprise us with their resilience down the road and stage a Mickey Rourke-style comeback. Take Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , which was left for dead after it lost around 80% from its highs after the tech bust. By early 2008, shares fetched nearly 30 times as much as they did in early 2003.
The credits for this chapter in your investing career have not yet begun to roll. So catch your breath, powder your nose, and prepare for your next big comeback, kiddo.
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