Stop Checking Your Portfolio

Stop Checking Your Portfolio

We’re nearly halfway through 2022 and the year has not been kind to investors, to say the least. Global stock markets are suffering their worst prolonged losses in recent memory. The S&P 500 is down about 18.5%, international stocks are down about 17%, and emerging market stocks are down about 15%. Domestic stocks have fared better, but the broad Canadian market is still down about 4% this year.

Meanwhile, bonds have not been a safe haven as rising interest rates pushed bond prices down. A broad Canadian bond index is down almost 13% this year, while short-term bonds are also down about 5.5%.

What’s an investor to do?

For starters, stop checking your portfolio so often. Investors who focus too much on short-term performance tend to react too negatively to recent losses, at the expense of long-term benefits. This phenomenon is known as myopic loss aversion:

“A large-scale field experiment has shown that individuals who receive information about investment performance too frequently tend to underinvest in riskier assets, losing out on the potential for better long-term gains (Larson et al., 2016).”

Loss aversion is a cognitive bias – the idea that a loss is psychologically more painful than the pleasure of an equivalent gain.

Think of the your portfolio returns over the past three years (2019-2021). It felt good to see your investments increase by double-digits. Here are the returns for Vanguard’s Balanced ETF (VBAL) during that time:

  • 2019 – 14.91%
  • 2020 – 10.24%
  • 2021 – 10.27%

Fast forward to 2022 and VBAL is down 10% on the year. Loss aversion tells us the pain of these losses is felt twice as powerfully as the pleasure of the previous years’ gains.

With myopic loss aversion, we focus too narrowly on specific investments without taking into account the bigger picture. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever checked your portfolio a short-time after a recent purchase and cursed your luck if the investment is down.

Professor John List was a recent guest on the Rational Reminder podcast and he co-authored a paper on myopic loss aversion. The paper found that, “professional traders who receive infrequent price information invest 33% more in risky assets, yielding profits that are 53% higher, compared to traders who receive frequent price information.”

When asked how often investors should check their portfolio, List said, “as rarely as possible”:

“I would say once every three, six months is fine. But the reason why I don’t want you to look at your portfolio is, because when you do and you see losses, even though they’re paper losses. You say, “My gosh, that hurts.” And you’re more likely to move your portfolio out of risky assets and into less risky assets. And as we all know, just look at the data. The data over long periods of time, that’s the equity premium puzzle, is that you get much higher returns, if you’re willing to bear some of that risk. Now, if you look at your account a lot and you have myopic loss of version, you’ll be much less likely to bear that risk. So, you’ll move out and you’ll be in inferior investments.”

This applies to both novice and experience investors. I coach clients regularly on the benefits of sticking to their investment strategy and ignoring short-term market fluctuations. But it’s hard when the daily news headlines are screaming in your face about how bad the market is doing and why it’s only going to get worse.

My worst moment was during the March 2020 crash. I had just quit my job three months before, and my investments were down 34% in a short period of time. It was a rough time when even I was questioning what to do. It didn’t help that I had no RRSP or TFSA contribution room – so I couldn’t even “buy the dip” to make myself feel better.

Related: Exactly How I Invest My Own Money

What did I do? I stopped checking my portfolio. I had no reason to log-in anyway, since I wasn’t making regular contributions. I reminded myself that my investments were long-term in nature, and that markets go up most of the time. Periodic declines are the price of admission for risky assets like stocks.

For investors in the accumulation stage, I’d argue this market decline is a blessing in that the contributions you make today have a higher expected return than contributions you made 6-12 months ago. Take advantage of this opportunity to pick up more shares at today’s depressed prices.

For investors closing in on retirement, now is the time to prepare your retirement income plan, which should include having 1-3 years’ worth of spending in safe assets like cash (high interest savings) or short-term GICs. Give yourself a safe cash buffer so you don’t need to sell investments at a loss. You can even build this cash buffer with new contributions, rather than selling off investments. Retirement can be 30+ years in length, so you still need a reasonable exposure to stocks and bonds for the long-term.

Investors already in retirement may be experiencing the most stress. That’s because they’re already in withdrawal mode and feeling the sting of portfolio losses. Nevertheless, it’s a great time to check in on your financial plan and zoom out to see the big picture. 

Look at your buckets of income. You may have guaranteed income from a workplace pension and/or government benefits. Maybe some rental income or earnings from a part-time job. Do you have a cash reserve to top-up your income, or are you relying on portfolio withdrawals? Can you spread out your portfolio withdrawals or take them later in the year?

Are you withdrawing solely from an RRSP or RRIF, while leaving your TFSA intact? Consider pausing your TFSA contributions or taking a small withdrawal so you don’t have to dip further into your RRSP/RRIF.

Do you have a planned one-time expense that can be pushed down the road to 2023 or 2024? This could include a vehicle replacement or home renovation.

The point is, no matter what age and stage you’re at there is likely an obvious solution or at least several steps you can take to stop obsessing over your investment portfolio and its short-term performance.

Investors with a sensible plan that takes into account their short and long-term goals shouldn’t worry about their investments. That’s because they should already be invested in a risk appropriate portfolio. If that portfolio was sensible in 2021, it’s still sensible today.

Do yourself a favour this week and stop checking your portfolio. Your mental health deserves a break. Take comfort in the fact that markets do go up over the long-term. Better days are ahead.

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  1. CanadianFI@45 on June 12, 2022 at 12:23 pm

    Rob, I retired from full time work at 45 (Nov 2020) and this market decline doesn’t feel good at all but I keep reminding myself about why I retired from full time work, and I knew that these market declines were going to happen from time to time. Originally I was 100% equities and had moved 30% of my portfolio to short term bonds in case of a decline. I recently sold off all my short terms bond that were down about 4%, and I bought more equities that were down a little more than double that. So now I’m back to 100% equities. I had planned this of sorts, but I did it a little too early (timing the market is very difficult). Since I still work part-time (2 days), I can hold the line. I may see a small benefit once the market recovers, but it will take time and clear head.

  2. John Buchanan on June 15, 2022 at 3:21 pm

    Hi Rob. Great article in these uncertain times! I was just wondering if those returns that you mentioned for VBAL were net of fees or not? Thanks!

  3. Sell Low, Buy Lower on June 16, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Rob, I have been retired for 10 years and the number of financial crises is adding up. I would like to point out that there are always opportunities to be aware of, even in a declining market. Many years ago, before ETFs, I started investing in TD efunds (non-registered account) which have served me very well. However, now there are plenty of ETF options available that I wanted to indulge in, but unfortunately the tax on the capital gains within the efunds held me back. The recent market has drastically reduced the capital gains so that I can switch from several efunds to ETFs with a minimum of additional income tax. In one switch I sold the efund at a capital loss, then purchased an equivalent ETF at an even better discount!
    But probably the best value of the current market behavior is the opportunity to better understand your true risk tolerance. You can fill out all the questionnaire’s, or talk with financial advisors, but nothing stacks up next to a real-life test. Instead of not checking your portfolio, I would suggest that you check it every day. Make a log book of how you feel and think. Am I worried? Can I sleep at night? Do I think about it during the day? What do I look at in my portfolio? Is there anything that I would consider changing? What asset allocation would make me feel better? Note that the intent is not to make any rash decisions now. (It’s too late for that.) The idea is that in another 6 months, year, or whenever the the market is well into its next bull run, you can then read your log book again and decide what changes, if any, you should make. It is very important not to make decisions when your emotions are in control, but it is also very important to remember your previous emotions when you are calmly evaluating your risk tolerance. These reality-tests don’t happen that often, especially the extreme ones, so it is important to take advantage of them when they occur. This has worked well for me.

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