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In last year's Investor's Guide, assistant managing editor Pat Regnier wrote about his panicky flight from stocks into all cash in 2011. Here's what happened next.
The best I can say is, I didn't hurt myself. Much.
For a time, my bet worked out: I sold all the stock funds in my 401(k) during the Washington, D.C., drama over the debt ceiling and missed a big drop in the market.
But as I wrote last year, all the evidence showed that market timing is a mug's game -- that I was just lucky, temporarily -- and I vowed to go back to a buy-and-hold strategy. Though my panic taught me that I should probably hold less in stocks than I had previously, I decided to move a chunk of my 401(k) assets back into equities each quarter.
Which would have been a great idea -- if I had actually done it. I procrastinated and missed a bunch of opportunities to buy at what now look like low prices. In the end, I finally edged back into the market at prices just a little bit higher than when I sold. And I took home one more lesson about the folly of trying to outwit the market:
Stock investing is like a reverse roach motel. It's easy to check out of taking risk, but hard to check back in again. When I was anxious about Congress blowing up the market, selling was an instantly soothing break from worry. Sure, I could be missing out on gains, but Behavioral Finance 101 says most of us fret far more over losses than forgone opportunities.
Taking a risk with your savings, on the other hand, is a big mental effort with very little short-term reward. You don't get to feel that wave of relief that comes with removing yourself and your money from the fray. Instead, you have to gird yourself for the very real possibility that this decision could lose you thousands of dollars the next day. (This is especially true when you start trading big chunks of your portfolio; I found it much easier, earlier in the year, to tilt my biweekly paycheck contributions back to stocks.)
You have to remind yourself of all the reasons you ought to be okay with this. For a busy person with no taste for gambling, this is the kind of thing that's easy to put off until tomorrow, and then tomorrow...
It could have gone worse. The financial adviser and writer William Bernstein warned me that if the market rose significantly beyond the price I sold at and I was still in cash, I would have an even harder time talking myself back in again.
Setting a plan to take some risk and sticking to it isn't always comfortable, but I can tell you that it works a lot better than the alternative.