According to a recent Gallup poll, 13% of people who own stocks say they have little-to-no tolerance for significant market declines. That's shocking, because stocks decline significantly all the time. Even more shocking is that Gallup defined "significant" as a drop of 5% to 10%, which could better be described as "the kind of thing that will likely happen several times a year for as long as you own stocks."
People talk a lot about the huge fees charged by investment managers. Consultants at IBM once calculated that fees paid for investment products underperforming their benchmark exceeds half a trillion dollars per year. In GDP terms that would be the 22nd largest country in the world, in between Sweden and Poland. The People's Republic of Expensive Advice.
But the biggest investment fees are intangible. They're the ones you pay through anxiety and uncertainty. An iron rule of life is that if you want something nice, you have to pay for it. In stock investing this goes beyond paying an investment manager. You, the investor, have to be willing to put up with market declines. That's the admission fee for long-term returns. You actually get this bill in the mail, but it doesn't look like an invoice; it's an account statement showing your portfolio is worth less than last month and no exact timeline of a rebound. It's a mental surcharge that you pay with cortisol rather than cash.
What we're seeing in the last few months are these bills coming due. People either didn't know they would get a bill, or have sticker shock over how high it is. Yeah, they paid their advisor a cover charge. But now they realize drinks still cost $14. They wanted high returns without much effort, which is an idea capitalism smashes with a vengeance.
People who fight these bills consistently lose. As stocks were crashing in 2009 Charlie Munger was asked how stock investors can avoid big declines. He responded:
It's in the nature of stock markets to go way down from time to time. There's no system to avoid bad markets. You can't do it unless you try to time the market, which is a seriously dumb thing to do. Conservative investing with steady savings without expecting miracles is the way to go.
My friend Michael Batnick also put it well this week:
As you're probably painfully aware, the S&P 500 hasn't made any progress over the last two years. If you're feeling a little frustrated, I have some bad news for you, this is how stocks work. The stock market doesn't owe you anything. It doesn't care that you're about to retire. It doesn't care that you're funding your child's education. It doesn't care about your wants and needs or your hopes and dreams.
I absolutely believe that stocks are the best game in town. I don't think there is a better way for the average investor to grow their wealth. However, this is called investing and the price of admission is gut wrenching drawdowns and sometimes years and years with nothing to show for it. If you can accept that this is the way things work, you can be an enormously successful investor.
The last part is the most important. The good news is that these bills are well worth paying. Paying them is how wealth is accumulated over time. Responding to market declines with composure is what separates good investors from burned investors. So, chin up. None of this should be too depressing. Realizing that dealing with these moments are what pays off in the long run makes enduring them that much easier.