In The Book of Joan, a tribute to the comedian Joan Rivers, her daughter, Melissa, shares some of her late mother’s quirks. Among them: Her mother always drove 40 miles an hour. Regardless of where she was—on the highway, in a school zone, in the driveway—she always drove 40 miles an hour. Melissa’s conclusion: For passengers, this could be hair-raising, but at least she was consistent.
When it comes to investing, consistency is definitely a virtue. It’s best to pick a strategy and stick with it. But this story illustrates that consistency can also be risky. When it’s carried too far, consistency can cross over into stubbornness. And then it can become a problem.
As you manage your finances through this volatile period, you may be wondering where to draw that line. When should you stay true to your strategy, and when does it make sense to change course? While everyone’s situation is unique, below are some thoughts on this topic:
The world is a noisy place—and an opinionated place. To make better decisions, I would turn down the volume on these factors:
Expert opinion. At one point during the 1990s bull market, Fed chair Alan Greenspan made headlines when he warned about “irrational exuberance.” But if you had heeded his warning, you wouldn’t have fared very well. Yes, the stock market did drop—but not before it more than doubled in the three years following Greenspan’s warning. And even after the market did finally drop in 2000, it never fell as low as it was on the day Greenspan made that famous remark. The lesson, as always: No one, no matter how vaunted their position—not even the Fed chair—can predict the future. You might make a note of their view, but never treat it as gospel.
News media. It might seem like common sense to tune out the shrill voices on financial news channels. But an academic study in 1987 actually proved this. Psychologist Paul Andreassen demonstrated that investors with more access to financial news engaged in more frequent trading and realized worse investment returns. People on TV might sound like they know what they’re talking about, but that still doesn’t mean their investment advice will be accurate.
Those with an agenda. Back in March, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman warned in a TV interview that “hell is coming.” Later, it was revealed that Ackman had a big short trade in place—that is, he was positioned to benefit from a further drop in the stock market. The lesson: As you make financial decisions, keep in mind that those with a microphone in front of them might be using it to further their own goals, not yours.
Pessimists. As author Morgan Housel has pointed out, pessimists sound smarter than optimists. “In investing, a bull sounds like a reckless cheerleader, while a bear sounds like a sharp mind who has dug past the headlines.” These days, everyone has an opinion on where things are headed. So it’s important to be aware of this phenomenon of perceiving pessimists’ arguments as being more well reasoned than optimists’.
Election years. This election, more than others in recent memory, seems fraught with emotion. But according to a Vanguard analysis, market returns in election years don’t differ meaningfully from returns in non-election years. Nor does the level of volatility. Vanguard’s conclusion: Yes, elections are a big deal, but not necessarily for your portfolio. So I wouldn’t use the election to guide your investment decisions.
If those are the situations in which it makes sense to turn down the volume, what would warrant a change in your financial plan?
Personal circumstances. This may seem like the most obvious reason to revisit one’s plan, but it’s often overlooked. That’s because, for most people, financial change occurs incrementally. But cumulatively, small changes can be transformative. That’s why it makes sense periodically to revisit the pillars of your financial plan. Where to begin? I’d start with an area that’s often overlooked: insurance. With apologies for being morbid, it’s worth confirming that your life and disability coverage are sized appropriately for your family’s current needs. If the size of your family or of your nest egg has changed, it may be worth updating your coverage.
New information. I argued above that you should tune out TV talking heads and expert prognosticators. But that doesn’t mean you should tune out everything. If new and meaningful information comes to your attention, you shouldn’t feel anchored to past decisions. Suppose, for example, you’ve come to understand the true cost of a whole life insurance policy or the risk level of a mutual fund—then you shouldn’t hesitate to make a change.
Structural change. Why are experts so ineffective at making predictions? Earlier this week, fellow advisor Ben Carlson helped explain this phenomenon. The problem, in short, is that the world is always changing. “The world of finance,” he says, “is littered with people who are experts on an earlier version of the world…There are a handful of investment principles that are evergreen but the market structure is constantly in a state of flux.” This has always been the case, but it’s especially true this year. If the pandemic and the election weren’t dominating the news, the Federal Reserve’s dramatic new policies would be big news. For many investors, these changes warrant a different strategy. Again, if the facts have changed, you shouldn’t feel anchored to past decisions.
What if a change in plan does seem warranted? What’s next?
The answer to this question is that it depends. For some things—like the life insurance example above—there may be no reason to delay after you’ve gathered the facts and done the analysis. Similarly, if you identify a key risk in your investment life, I wouldn’t delay. Recently, for example, I saw a portfolio that had more than 25% allocated to one stock. It was a great stock—Amazon—but that’s still too much. That’s the sort of change you’d make right away.
In other cases, however, a more gradual shift might be better. In his book Mastering the Market Cycle, Howard Marks encourages readers to think in nuanced, rather than binary, terms. “Get the market’s tendency on your side,” he says. “The outcome will never be under your control, but if you invest when the market’s tendency is biased toward favorable, you’ll have the wind at your back…”
What does this mean in practice? In the investment world, people debate endlessly about the importance of valuation. Today, in particular, people are concerned that the market is overvalued. But the fact is, no valuation metric is perfect. And while there is some connection between valuation and future returns, that relationship isn’t ironclad—the Greenspan example being just one notable example. That’s why, when it comes to portfolio changes, I think it makes sense to implement changes gradually. If you’re dollar-cost averaging into the market today, for example, you might go a little more slowly than you would have six months ago. And you might favor market segments that are still depressed, like value stocks. On the other hand, if you are rebalancing or taking money out for spending, you might weight your sales toward the S&P 500, which has seen the biggest run-up and where valuations look most extended. But it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. As Marks says, just try to get the wind at your back.
In general, consistency is a good thing, but sometimes it does make sense to shift course. With all due respect to Joan Rivers, you don’t want to always drive the same speed regardless of the situation. The key is knowing when to speed up and when to slow down.