Markets are volatile, you're emotional, don't do anything crazy

Volatility is the name of the game and stocks are starting February on a high note after an unsettling January.

For the first month of the year, the Dow (^DJI) was down 3.7% and the S&P 500 (^GSPC) fell 3.1%. The Nasdaq (^IXIC) shed 2.1%. January is known for setting the tone for the rest of the year in terms of stocks, but 2014 bucked that notion; after a particularly dismal January last year (worse than this year) the S&P 500 ended the year with a gain of more than 11%.

Still, the headwinds blowing markets around are getting stronger. Falling crude prices and a sharply rising dollar have already hit corporate earnings. Stocks were up sharply on Tuesday at the time of publishing on signs that oil prices are firming and Greece is backing off its hardline approach to debt negotiations. But uncertainty in Europe and an weakening global economy overall remain factors in this market. Questions surrounding the Fed’s upcoming rate hike are also a conern, though January’s jobs report, due out Friday, may give a little more clarity there.

All of this is making investors jittery, and that whole buy-and-hold strategy is a lot to stomach. “We kind of use this big, huge paintbrush and just say, ‘Well you’re timing the market if you get emotional and all,’” says Yahoo Finance’s Jeff Macke. “But the truth is, life comes with timing. It may not be emotion, it may be the fact that you have a kid who wants to go to college,” he says.

It’s more about timing your life than timing the market, and uncertainty and fears of a downturn can cripple investors. “Unless you are Warren Buffett who can withstand that pain, a significant drawdown can change your lifestyle,” says David Nelson, chief strategist at Belpointe.

“As advisers, we are really asking the impossible of investors to put that aside,” says Nelson. He points to the scores of investors who left the markets after getting burned during the financial crisis and have never come back. Because they’ve missed the entire bull market, he says, most will need a strategy focused on drawdowns as much as keeping up with or beating a benchmark.

“Let’s face it, when you have a 20% drawdown in a portfolio, it’s pretty scary,” he says.  “Perhaps the buy-and-hold strategy that works great for Warren Buffett works great for an endowment that has decades to make good on bad investments early on, but I think that today as we move forward we are going to need something different,” he says.

As for tips for the retail investor, Nelson says don’t overthink it. “Sometimes an asset class is on an obvious downtrend. Maybe it should be avoided until it turns back up. Don’t try to guess the bottom, don’t try to guess the top. We all know those rules.”

“A systematic approach is going to help get you there,” he says. “I don’t think it’s something that every single investor can do. But there are firms funds and even ETFs that can get you there.”

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