Beginner’s Guide to Market Volatility

How to stay calm when markets make you uneasy, according to a financial behaviorist


In recent weeks, the stock market has fluctuated in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Last week was the worst for the market since the 2008 financial crisis, and this week has been a wild ride as well. And yet, experts say, you could lose out in the long run if you make rash decisions now.

Fluctuations in the market are actually common, and historically, downturns have ended in upturns. It can help to take the long view: Even after the activity of the last couple of weeks, the S&P 500 is still up 180% over the past 10 years. "This episode will pass, even if it's impossible to know exactly when, Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst at Bankrate recently told Grow: "For long-term investors, this jolt is a bump in the road that will eventually only be a memory."

How do you stay calm when you're feeling those bumps? Jacquette M. Timmons is a financial behaviorist with an MBA who helps clients work through money challenges such as these. Here's what she suggests.

1. Understand the source of your uneasiness

The first step to ease those nerves, she says, is to ask yourself a few questions. "When you start investing in the market, it's generally to build wealth in service of a goal. What is that goal? Are you afraid that you won't have the money to meet a particular need? What is that particular need?"

Investing in the market is best for building wealth to reach your long-term goals. If your goal is not to grow your money over the course of years or decades but rather to save in the short term, this could be a good reminder to diversify and keep some money accessible in a savings account and in an emergency fund. That way, you should have enough on hand to cover your expenses, Timmons says.

Recognizing that your goal is to invest for the long haul, by contrast, can help you remember that a few days' worth of unsteadiness shouldn't be cause for alarm. In the past, the market has always recovered and then continued to rise.

"You have to keep in mind, 'What's your goal?' and 'What's the timing of that goal and when are you going to need the liquidity for that goal?' says Timmons. "If you don't need it tomorrow, or the rest of this year, then you can really be kind of blasé about it and look at it as, 'Yeah, I'm seeing the total market value of my portfolio go down at the moment, but actually, this is the perfect time to buy."

Another question you could ask yourself is, "Are you worried in response to the fact that other people seem worried? If not, what are you responding to?" It could be that constant updates about the news cycle are feeding your fears in an unhelpful way. Timmons says that the solution could be as simple as tuning off your TV for a bit. 

2. Stay informed, but don't read every headline 

For a lot of people, having the right information can bring on a sense of comfort. Better understanding what the market is doing and why might affect your feelings about any sudden highs or lows. 

Still, Timmons says, there's a difference between staying informed and following every breaking news alert. "As the person consuming the news, you should be able to look at it with a little bit of a passing glance," she says.

You may actually benefit from waiting for the market to stabilize and not letting your news feed dictate your emotional experience or your actions. Same goes for your portfolio: Though it's smart to monitor it, you don't want to check it too often. Experts suggest once per quarter. 

Why you shouldn't panic when markets are bumpy

Video by Stephen Parkhurst 

3. Pause for 24 hours before making any big decisions

If the market's moves have made you consider pulling out of the market altogether, you're not alone. People who withdraw funds out of panic miss out when the market rebounds, though. For that reason, Timmons urges investors, especially long-term investors, not to make any rash decisions.

The best way to keep from acting impulsively is to institute a waiting period for yourself when you want to make these kinds of choices. "Take a pause and see if you can wait 24 hours before making any kind of long-term decision and see if you still feel that same intensity to take action 24 hours later," says Timmons. "And then if you do, by all means, start the process. If you don't, give yourself another 24 hours."

Take some time to reflect on what is making you feel uneasy, she suggests. You don't want to create a cause and effect relationship between your emotion and the market's volatility. Emotions are valid, but you can recognize them without putting them in control.

A waiting period becomes "a way of creating a boundary," she says, "so that you're acknowledging your emotions, but you're being systematic about the actions that you're taking." 

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