Saturday October 27, 2012

This quarter’s earnings season has not been kind to stocks. Corporate results continue to disappoint and forward guidance has been less than rosy. The stock markets have drifted lower as a result, providing us with a much-needed consolidation.

Unfortunately, stock markets need these periodic pullbacks. As I have written before, expect three to four such pullbacks per year of between 3-6 percent in the equity markets. It is the cost of doing business. Without them, financial markets would be just too dangerous for the average investor. And I have never met a person or firm that can trade those declines consistently and successfully, so don’t try.

Now is the time, however, for a little hand holding. About now my phone begins to ring regularly with client calls. They always begin this way:

"Have you changed your mind about the markets?"

"No," I reply, waiting for the next question.

"So how much lower do you think stocks can go?"

The real question behind that one is "How much more pain do you expect me to endure?"

Clients are expressing what is called loss aversion, which is part of the Prospect Theory. This theory was coined by two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, back in the 1990s. They contend that people value gains and losses differently. Losses, they say, have more emotional impact than an equivalent amount of gains.

In my experience, they are absolutely right. Rarely, if ever, do I receive calls when the markets are roaring. On occasion I may receive a call from someone who is worried about how high the markets have climbed, but once again I believe the concern is more about the avoidance of loss (pain) than any giddiness based on how much the investor has made.

Now, pain has a profound effect on us humans. It can make us take irrational actions. If I think back to times in my life when I was in severe pain, all I wanted was for the pain to stop and I would do just about anything to feel better. And this statement is coming from a guy who has an extremely high tolerance for pain.

In the investment world, this aversion to losses has caused many a good man and woman to dump their holdings at the absolute worst time. Over and over again, I have seen this wholesale selling capitulation, sometimes on the very same day that markets have hit their bottom.

Of course, we all know that we should never make any decisions based on emotions but we do it anyway. That’s why we are who we are. I’m just asking readers and clients alike to try and be honest with their decision to buy, sell or hold. In my investment experience, the correct decision is to do the exact opposite that my emotions are telling me to do. If I can’t do that, then most likely I should do nothing.

Bringing this home to today’s markets, I would advise you to simply sit on your hands and do nothing. We are pulling back because third-quarter earnings were a disappointment. But remember, those are earnings that have already occurred. They are not indicative of future earnings.

The elections are less than two weeks away and after that we confront the much-heralded "fiscal cliff." Since the markets dislike uncertainty, I would expect further volatility and declines until then. Rather than work yourself into a frenzy, just ignore the daily gyrations and keep your eye on the bigger picture. I expect the economy to strengthen, not weaken, from here and as such there are better times ahead.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative with Berkshire Money Management. Schmick’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquires to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or e-mail him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com