Keeping a Steady Hand on the Wheel Under Changing Financial Conditions

The way we buy cars offers a great example of what I call “binge/purge” money management.

For the auto industry, 2018 was a solid year. Some 17.3 million vehicles were sold, with SUVs and trucks leading the way. Auto industry writers, such as Jason Unrau, attributed the strong sales, in large part, to low gas prices (remember those days?). “At the pumps, if the average price of gasoline in America remains under the $3 mark, you can expect larger vehicles to fly off the lot,” he said.

It happens all the time. Outside circumstances change, and our behavior follows.

A common mistake with investing

Binge/purge is standard operating procedure for many investors as well. It can be seen in annual surveys that show investors underperforming the funds they invest in. How can that happen? When the market falls, fear prompts a run for the exits. Once they’ve gotten out, binge/purge investors often find it much more difficult to get back in, and usually do so only after the market has exceeded its previous high.

A better way

One of my favorite investment writers is Jason Zweig, who pens (“keyboards”?) the Intelligent Investor column in the Wall Street Journal. After hundreds of columns in which he closely studied the market, one principle stood out.

“From financial history and from my own experience,” Zweig wrote, “I long ago concluded that regression to the mean is the most powerful law in financial physics: Periods of above-average performance are inevitably followed by below-average returns, and bad times inevitably set the stage for surprisingly good performance.”

In other words, bull markets are followed by bear markets, which are followed by bull markets, and on and on. Investing is best done from the perspective of a long-term investor, not a short-term trader. Something you can control, time in the market, is far more important to your success than the impossible-to-achieve goal of perfect market timing. Find an investment strategy you can stay with in good times and in bad, and then, in fact, stay with it.

The same principle can be seen with many financial decisions, such as buying a car. Just like the stock market, gas prices are cyclical. Low prices are followed by high prices, which are followed by low prices, and on and on. Vehicles are best bought with cash and kept for a long time—long enough to drive them through several cycles of changing gas prices. Buy vehicles you can afford to drive no matter how much gas costs.

No more financial binging and purging

Recognizing the cyclical nature of the economy is one thing. Resisting the temptation to be swayed by especially good or bad times is more difficult. As Zweig cautioned, “…humans perceive reality in short bursts and streaks, making a long-term perspective almost impossible to sustain…”

Developing that long-term perspective is an important part of what it means to be proactive with money instead of reactive, an initiator instead of a responder, a steward or manager—or, as I prefer, a wise builder—instead of a consumer.

Winning with money is about making financial decisions that work well under today’s circumstances, and that would still hold up under very different circumstances.

Are you considering a significant financial decision right now? How will you feel about it when circumstances change, for better or for worse? How much would today’s circumstances have to change in order for you to regret the decision you’re contemplating?

What’s an example of a financial decision you’ve made that has held up well under different economic conditions, or one that didn’t hold up so well?

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