The willpower to withstand

If you’ve been paying attention to world markets in the last six weeks, you’ll know it hasn’t been a fun time.

World markets are all down, and some have fallen by more than 20 per cent, taking them into official “bear market” territory. The good news is the worst declines — touch wood — happened early in January and there have been some bounces since; scary headlines are appearing less and less now.

The roller coaster ride has been a good opportunity for all investors to reflect on their risk tolerance and willpower. How did you behave when the market was falling on a daily basis? How did you feel? What was your reaction compared to the last time markets fell dramatically?

Even those whose investments were immune from the worst falls couldn’t help but pay attention as markets tumbled. I guess it’s a little like rubbernecking after a car accident. If somebody else’s investments have a bad fall, you can’t help but have a look and thank your lucky stars it wasn’t you.

Two of the largest US fund managers, Fidelity and T. Rowe Price, fielded a record number of calls from investors as markets fell in the early days of January. Almost 4 million people contacted Fidelity on January 4 alone, just to check on their retirement savings.

A spokesperson said: “It’s mostly just savers who want to gawk at an unfolding mess, a way to feel like you’re taking action without actually making panicky moves. The majority didn’t actually do anything or make a transaction.”

A British financial adviser recently started recording his feelings in a blog to use this market experience to “discover a few home truths” about his risk tolerance. Having completed a standard risk tolerance survey years ago, he has always thought of himself as a risk-taker, in the “top 2 per cent when it comes to laughing in the face of volatility”.

However, he found himself anxiously staring at his screen in the early weeks of January; the longer the volatility continued with red numbers popping up everywhere, the more he felt his nerves were being tested.

He compared the current market environment to the bear market of 2008 and remembered he had coped reasonably well with that fall, which was a lot bigger than now. So why did he feel so sweaty in January?

He realised time had made a difference to his risk tolerance. Back in 2008, he was a bit younger and retirement was that much further away. His investment portfolio then was worth relatively less; he has added to it over the last seven years. Nowadays, a few days of volatility can wipe thousands of dollars off his wealth.

His most recent post noted he is hanging in there and undertaking a “staring contest” with the market. He wants to know how much wealth he can watch evaporate and not blink.

Recent market turmoil has required willpower — not to panic or overreact. Maintaining willpower is hard, particularly when wealth is at stake.

Willpower apparently gets depleted if we use it too much — a growing body of research shows resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll.

The rolling nature of this current market downturn and the accompanying headlines about bear markets and recessions will certainly have weighed heavily on some investors.

But the rewards of investing come to those who can resist temptation when markets go bad. Hang in there.

February 5, 2016