Don’t Do Something. Just Stand There!

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You learn a lot by the discipline of reading old news.

Most of financial news is just noise. You ought to ignore it when it is published.

Often, if you read the news with three months of hindsight, you can learn to recognize its foolishness in real time.

I’m commenting today about a great article by Mitchell Tuchman published five months ago.

January 2014 had just ended with the the Dow down 4.4%, the S&P 500 off 2.9%, and the Nasdaq composite down 1.28%.

Here is how Tuchman begins the article:

The headlines pulled no punches after a poor January and a tough start to February for stocks: “Brutal” said one, “horrific” said another.

The natural human compulsion in such times is to take action. Yet before investors really absorb such headlines, the time for action will have passed. And that’s the problem.

The solution, to cite Vanguard Group founder John Bogle, is to do nothing at all. While that sounds like a weak strategy, it’s the only strategy retirement investors should consider.

Tuchman goes on to quote a column by Bogle:

While the interests of the business are served by the aphorism ‘Don’t just stand there. Do something!’ the interests of investors are served by an approach that is its diametrical opposite: ‘Don’t do something. Just stand there!’

Most mutual fund investors underperform the very mutual funds they are invested in. Yes, they underperformed the mutual funds they invested in by 1.5%.

They did this because they moved out of funds after they went down and moved into funds after they went up.

Just to be clear, 1.5% is huge. For an extra 1% over your working career you can retire 7 years earlier or 50% richer.

As the markets bounce around, it can be easy for 1.5% to not seem like much. However, in the midst of all that financial noise, it is better to have a disciplined approach which captures that extra 1.5% simply by not doing anything.

Opposite of selling what has gone down is rebalancing. By rebalancing into asset classes that have done poorly and out of ones that have done well, you may be able to gain 1.6%.

Compared to rebalancing, selling what has gone down (“doing something”) to ease the pain may lose 3.1% (1.6% from not buying more and 1.5% from selling some of what you had).

Don’t do something stupid.

Don’t ruin a beautiful moment or a beautiful asset allocation just because you think something needs to be done.

And if you must do something, make it rebalancing.

Photo by John McDonnell used here under Flickr Creative Commons.

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President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.