The Stock Market Is Tanking. Do Nothing.

Timing the market is a game for professionals, not amateurs. And most professionals are terrible at it too.

A man inside the Stock Exchange
Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty

Wash your hands. Ignore the markets. Don’t touch your face. And don’t touch your stocks.

That is hard advice to follow. With the coronavirus epidemic intensifying, the markets have entered a period of extraordinary volatility. Don’t act on the information that follows: Over the weekend, the price of oil cratered 25 percent. Stock-market futures plunged so dramatically that the exchanges shut down, as did equity exchanges this morning. The entire United States Treasury yield curve fell below 1 percent for the first time ever; in layman’s terms, that means investors were paying for the privilege of lending money to the American government, due to overwhelming demand for safe assets. A fear gauge of the bond market hit its highest level since the 2008 financial crisis, maybe its highest level ever. Panic, chaos, terror, and uncertainty reigned.

It feels like 2008 out there. And of course it does. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is killing thousands of people and infecting what might end up being millions. Businesses are shuttering and failing; quarantines and travel bans are coming into place; companies are slashing earnings estimates and economists are slashing growth forecasts; millions of workers are seeing their wages evaporate; and governments are bungling their economic and public-health responses to the illness. It is bad out there. The markets reflect that.

But for kitchen-table investors, the best advice is not to flee to safety. It is not to sell stocks and buy bonds. It is not to move into cash and gold, or to think about alternatives such as cryptocurrencies. It is not to hedge with health-care stocks, or to try to dump Chinese and Italian investments, or to short the American fracking business, or to buy the dip. It is to do nothing.

The simple, fundamental principle of investing holds that you should buy low and sell high. It makes intuitive sense to sell when stocks are dropping and to buy when things are turning around. The market is panicking and plummeting now as the horror of COVID-19 is taking hold. It might crash harder as the mortality count gets worse and governments enact strict measures to contain the virus. Or it might rebound as countries get the worst of the epidemic behind them and financial regulators take action.

Which one? Nobody knows. That is the whole point: Timing the market is a game for professionals, not amateurs. And most professionals are terrible at it too. Study after study has shown that “active” investors, meaning ones who shuffle investments around to take advantage of new information and supposed opportunities, tend to do worse than “passive” investors, meaning ones who buy the broad market and walk away. One Morningstar analysis found that just one in four active funds beat the average returns provided by passive funds over a decade-long period, and that cheap-and-dumb funds were twice as successful as expensive-and-smart ones. And study after study has shown that the old investment chestnut is correct: Time in the market beats timing the market.

Say you were to sell your equities today, and to hold cash or bonds as the market plummeted. What are the chances you would be selling at the nadir? How would you know when the equities market had hit bottom? Would you be able to act fast enough if there were a muscular policy response and a surprise rebound? How much of a surge would you be willing to miss out on to make sure that you were not catching a dead-cat bounce? Even if you got out of the market at the right time, you would probably struggle to get back in at the right time. Trading during a time of extreme volatility means knowing when to buy in as well as when to cash out.

Investing on a longer time horizon means not worrying about buying dips and selling highs. And studies demonstrate that buying and holding assets for the long term is a great strategy for average folks saving for retirement, and for everybody: rich, poor, old, young, risk-averse, and risk-hungry. In one 10-year analysis, hedge funds—highly sophisticated investment instruments available only to the richest of the rich—returned a quarter of what plain-vanilla, market-tracking index funds did.

For now, that means accepting that things are scary. The market is terrifying, and reality is too. People are sick, families are suffering, and the American economy is going to go through a significant slowdown, if not an outright recession. The country’s social-insurance programs are woefully inadequate, and it looks like the coronavirus policy response might be too little and too late. But the market is not the economy. It surges and falls, and its movements are largely impossible to explain or predict. Families who have the means to invest should avoid acting on the basis of their fears. Tolerating volatility is just part of owning investments. Violent swings do not present opportunity. They do not not manifest doom. It is just noise. Noise that you should feel free to tune out.

If you need the money wrapped up in your investments right now, tuning out might be impossible. But this is why investment advisers suggest selling equities and moving into things such as bonds as you move closer to retirement or a set financial goal; the older you get, the less volatility you are able to tolerate. If you need money right now, to buy a house or pay an emergency bill, it might make sense to talk with a fee-only financial adviser about your options.

Otherwise, try to ignore the financial news. Try to do nothing. And wash your hands.