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How to Keep Cool When the Market Is Not

How to Keep Cool When the Market Is Not

Jeremy Glaser: For Morningstar, I'm Jeremy Glaser. With major indexes down over 4% today, it seemed like an opportune time to sit down with Steve Wendel, he's our head of behavioral sciences at Morningstar, with some ideas about how to keep your cool when the market isn't.

Steve, thanks for joining me.

Steve Wendel: Thanks for having me.

Glaser: We all know the advice is generally don't look at your portfolio when you have a day like this, but that's really hard to do, right? Is that something we could reasonably expect investors not to check their portfolio when you see this much volatility?

Wendel: First, that is good advice. There's lots of research on how frequently checking your portfolio, especially during market downturns, can warp one's behavior and get you into trouble. But we're all human. I've been looking at my portfolio as well throughout the day, just out of curiosity. Thankfully there are a variety of things we can do to help us calm down and get back to our rational selves.

Glaser: What are some of those strategies?

Wendel: A variety of great techniques you can use. The first one is to remember that our minds play tricks on us. That, fundamentally, volatility, downward or upward, is just data. As for the drop that just happened, that's past. That's gone. There's nothing we can do about what just happened. It's really as we think forward to what will happen that our minds take that data and apply a story. If you don't know what that story is, it's probably the bias of recency bias--thinking that what just happened is about to happen. But when we think about that rationally, we of course know that's not the case. One of the things that we can do is to round out that story: This just happened; this is what I believe is about to happen; what's the rightful thing to do? For most professional, thoughtful investors, they know it means you look for bargains. Same exact data. Very different outcome.

Glaser: Let's say that you are prepared for that, but we do see a further sell-off. There's more volatility. Is there anything you can do now to prepare yourself for that happening in the future? You could be looking for bargains for quite a while.

Wendel: Yes. Absolutely. The number-one rule is to externalize. It's to get it out of your head and take your calm, thoughtful decisions now to help guide you in the future. Now a variety of ways you can do that. One of the ways you can do that is to intentionally look for friction, so if you're working with an advisor or just with yourself say, set a rule for yourself. I'm going to have a three-day waiting period before I make any change. For example, if you're working with an advisor tell the advisor that they should only make a trade if you and your spouse are there. Think of ways that you can slow yourself down from making hasty decisions. Other techniques you can use, of course, are to write out the rules you want to follow: only if the market drops by this percentage in a particular amount of time. And then you're checking those rules again and again rather than checking your portfolio and making up the story about how bad things are going to happen.

Some other techniques you can use are to look at the emotional power of your investment policy statement. Look at what you wrote for yourself--or if you haven't already written one, of course, you should do that. Write out not just what your financial goals are but why you care. What matters to you and how that expresses who you are. Then, in times of trouble, you look back at that and say, fundamentally what I care about, what I value, has it changed? Probably not. It's a counterpoint to the vivid, crazy stories that can go in our heads when we see a market downturn.

Glaser: Of course, it always makes sense to separate the real world and your real life versus your portfolio. Particularly if you have 20, 30 years to retirement.

Wendel: Exactly right. So the challenge is how do we fight vivid with vivid? We get these vivid images of a market crash, etc., but really it's only one of the things that we can pay attention to. Think about what does this mean for your goals? Probably not too much and especially in a 20-, 30-year horizon. What are the other things you have to do in your life? Play with your kids, help your family, do your job, etc. So you balance that one vivid screaming thing over here with all the other things you have to do in your life. It can help put things back in perspective.

Glaser: Steve, thanks for your insights today.

Wendel: Pleasure being here. Thanks for having me.

Glaser: For Morningstar, I'm Jeremy Glaser. Thanks for watching.

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About the Authors

Steve Wendel

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Steve Wendel is head of behavioral science for Morningstar, where he leads a team of behavioral scientists and practitioners who conduct original research to help people invest and manage their money more effectively. Before assuming his current role in 2015, he was principal scientist for HelloWallet, a company that specializes in web and mobile financial wellness programs, where he studied savings behavior and coordinated the research efforts of HelloWallet’s advisory board. Morningstar owned HelloWallet from 2014 to 2017.

His latest book, Improving Employee Benefits, shows HR practitioners how they can use behavioral economics to help employees to take action on their benefits. In 2013, he published Designing for Behavior Change, which describes HelloWallet’s step-by-step approach to applying behavioral economics and psychology to product design.

Wendel holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s degree from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a doctorate from the University of Maryland, where he analyzed the dynamics of behavioral change over time.

Wendel is also the founder of the Action Design Network, a nonprofit organization that teaches members how use behavioral economics and psychology in product design. The network hosts more than 5,000 behavioral practitioners at events around the country, including the annual Design for Action Conference. Follow Steve on Twitter: @sawendel

Jeremy Glaser

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Jeremy Glaser is a stock analyst covering hotel management companies and real estate investment trusts. He joined Morningstar in February 2006 after graduating with honors from the University of Chicago with a bachelor of arts in economics.

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