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tortoise and hare

When thinking about pain, we know how the brain processes pain can provoke strong emotional reactions such as fear, anxiety, or, in some cases, even terror, depending on how the person experiencing the pain is processing it. If the brain can cause such strong emotions to the dark side, we also know it can be trained to handle and process pain to dull its effects.

Why is a Financial Planner discussing the human body, the brain, and pain? It’s human nature to run away from or try to limit pain’s effects—this is the primary cause of many individuals' poor investment decisions. Many will handle the pain by stopping the pain which comes as a result of selling their investments or no longer putting money into them until the pain (losses) subside. However, as we’ll learn, that is the worst decision one could make toward your future goals.

I want to answer this: Should you continue to fund your 401(k) even in a bear market? What’s the argument for consistency despite seeing my balance fall the wrong way? Let’s dig in…

Ensure the Basics Are Being Executed

Before we can worry about making the wrong decision during a bear market (a decline of 20% or more), we must ensure we’re executing our retirement-saving strategy correctly. We are proponents of the Baby Step methods taught by Dave Ramsey. This means before we encourage anyone even to begin saving for retirement, they must first have all their non-mortgage debt paid to zero and then have built a 3 – 6 month emergency fund to ensure they don’t fall back into debt, should an emergency happen. Once complete, you’re ready to start tackling retirement by allocating 15% of your gross income towards retirement, using your company-provided retirement plan up to the match, and then utilizing the Roth IRA for everything else. You can read this article we posted about a month ago for current Roth IRA limits. Suppose you still need to contribute more dollars to reach 15% after doing your retirement plan to the match and your Roth IRA. In that case, you may consider allocating back to your company retirement plan to round everything out.

Here's The Cycle

Again, it’s ordinary in every area of your life to try and stop the pain when you’re experiencing it. When you see your 401(k) or Roth IRA balances start to decline, that can invoke pain, no doubt about it. However, one must retrain their brain to remind themselves that when the market goes down, it presents the best buying opportunity for new dollars than you’ve seen in some time. If the market went straight up, almost as it did in 2021, then what you bought in March cost more than it cost in February and January. While on the aggregate, that feels good, you’d much rather prefer this scenario: if you bought for $1 in January, in February you were able to buy for $.80, and then in March for $.70, and by April, everything was back to up to $1.10. Your February contributions made $.30 and your March contributions made $.40 and you're back to even plus some! That is what happens in the market, just over much longer cycles than three months.

Based on my Article, Bear Markets: Normal Not Fun, we know that the average bear market takes 330 days to hit bottom with a 30% decline, on average. Then it takes 1.7 years to recover (getting back to where you were) before you start seeing growth again; this means you have almost three years during the average bear market to make contributions at lower prices than before the bear market began.

This is how stock markets in countries like Japan, which have seen very little growth, still provide their retirees with a mechanism to obtain better rates than what their banks (with their negative interest rates) can provide. If I have a flat market that is up and down, as long as I’m buying a decent amount when it’s down, I’ll still make money.

History Provides the Framework

This year (2022), the market hit a negative 25% at its worst. It was not quite the average bear market drop, and it happened a little sooner, but it was pretty close on both accounts. To find another period where we saw the market decline by that amount, we’d have to go back to March 19th, 2020, when we were amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During that market cycle, we got as low as negative 35%. Let’s assume you were faced with the decision at that point to pause your 401(k) and pile up cash (even though you already have an emergency fund) until you felt better about the market, or alternatively you just keep your tortoise mindset and kept your 401(k) contribution to the match and Roth IRA moving forward. Who wins this race?

Perhaps the person that stopped their contributions feels better (initially) because they did something. They stopped the pain. They took the brain's pain centers and gave them what they wanted: physical release because an action was taken. However, did they make the best long-term move?

Johnny Keeps Saving

Johnny kept saving through the pandemic. Using the S&P 500 (our growth and growth & income stocks) as the proxy, you can see that Johnny saw his contribution drop even further after the -25% point (March 19th, 2020). Still, it made a rebound and eventually got back to par, even then surpassing the initial contribution. It’s worth today 64.58% more than he put in. $100 is now $164.58 (as of November 2022). Nice job Johnny!

Billy Stops Savings

Billy, who, on the other hand, had different plans. Billy needed to satisfy those pain centers in the brain. Billy didn’t contribute until he saw the market fully recovered, and he could ensure that the world would not end. That meant he made his first contribution on July 19th, 2020, which would have been when the S&P 500 fully recovered. Billy started investing and got the pleasure of seeing his investment go straight up right away, not hitting a dip until September, and even then, that was a quick dip, and after he’s making money again. His investment is worth 22.97% more than he started with today (November 2022), so $100 would be worth approx. $122.97.

Johnny Wins: Time & Deeper Losses Make Even Strong Arguments

We can very clearly see that Johnny was the winner of this exercise. The tortoise always wins – it’s boring, yet it’s beautiful. This is one of the primary reasons why Vanguard wrote a study a few years ago, stating that Financial Advisors add around 3% value to their clients because they help them avoid the mistakes of being too emotional with their investing (along with other tactical financial planning benefits). If you push the exercise out farther and with deeper market drops (not that I’m advocating for one), the argument gets even better. Take a look at this chart, which helps you see if you would have stayed consistent with a $10,000 investment in 2008 (when we saw the market decline well over 40%).

That investment today is worth $40,000. In less than 14 years, it doubled and then doubled again, even accounting for this year's losses.

Therefore, be like Johnny. If you feel like you need to scratch the pain centers of your brain, read this article, talk to your Financial Advisor, take a cold shower, run a mile or do a myriad of other things that will take your mind off the stock market and onto how you can improve your life today because the investments will help take care of tomorrow.


November 27, 2022

John-Mark Young

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