In 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” in his first inaugural address.
Fear of the COVID-19 coronavirus is overblown. The main health risk is to the elderly and the infirm, such as to people with weakened immune systems. For younger people, the risk is similar to that of the flu. The mortality rate for children under age 10 is zero.
Yet, fear of COVID-19 is tangible enough to move the stock market.
The stock market volatility is driven in part by uncertainty. Fear of the unknown is causing concern about the potential impact of fear of infection on businesses. Air travel is down. Supply chains are delayed. The University of Washington has cancelled in-person classes through March 30 out of an abundance of caution and a seemingly virtuous minimization of risk.
This phobophobia, the fear of fear, is derivative in nature, but nevertheless it is big enough to have a significant impact.
The stock market is going to continue to flip back and forth until test kits are ubiquitously available, the number of new cases starts decreasing and a new vaccine has been proven effective. Until then, bad news will spark recurring shocks to the stock market.
When government leaders tell us that all is well, hoping to calm the markets, citizens are unconvinced and race to the exits. Saying “don’t panic” often has the opposite effect, especially when the speaker lacks expertise and credibility.
Yet, selling during a market downturn merely locks in the losses and causes investors to miss out on the economic recovery. For example, when the stock market dropped by 60% in June 2008 through February 2009, people who sold their investments missed out on a doubling of their investments in just two years and a full recovery in four years.
Don’t try to time the market lows and highs. It is better to just remain invested. Decide how to respond to the stock market gyrations with a reasoned reaction, not panic selling.
If you need to sell your college savings plan investments when the stock market is down to pay college bills, you do what you got to do. Perhaps you can find a way to delay taking a distribution for a few months. However, if you were invested in an age-based asset allocation, you most likely had only 10% or 20% exposure to equities, so the impact of selling at a loss will be minimal.
If college enrollment is years in the future, think of the market turmoil as a buying opportunity. Continue to invest regularly. Dollar-cost averaging buys the same number of shares on the way down as on the way up. It’s just your perspective that has changed.
It may be frightening to stare into the face of the abyss, but this incident will eventually pass, the stock market will resume an upward trajectory and your investments will recover.