98% stayed the course

Posted by on August 11, 2011 @ 2:52 pm in Investing

I read the headlines, same as you. Investors are panicking. During the drive in to work today, I listened to a radio business show. A correspondent talked about the flood of selling and the deep sense of fear in financial markets. Another expert spoke about investors cashing out and moving assets to the sidelines.

Yes, it is true that in volatile markets, there is more trading. And what is true in the markets is also true at Vanguard. In our 401(k) business, for example, the number of participants making a change in their portfolios, and the dollars they were moving, jumped five- or six-fold on the worst days for stocks. A similar pattern emerges in our retail business. These statistics are the source for headlines about shifting investor sentiment.

To put this into perspective, however, consider this: In the first eight trading days of August, including two of the most volatile days since 2008, just under 2% of 401(k) participants at Vanguard made a change to their portfolios. In other words, over 98% stayed the course. Ninety-eight percent took no action. Ninety-eight percent took the long-term view.

Now it’s true, if choppy markets continue, we’ll see this number inch down. Ninety-eight percent of participants staying the course might become 97%. In October 2008, during the depths of the financial crisis, it became 96%—in other words, 4% of participants made a move. But the fact remains: those trading are a very small subset of investors.

When markets are falling, trading activity jumps, sometimes by large amounts. And we are somehow misled into believing that “everyone” is dumping stocks and getting out of the market. But overall, as our 401(k) data show, most investors have a long-term perspective and don’t react to falling markets.

What’s more, we know from our research that during a financial crisis, few investors actually cash out their entire portfolios. Yes, there is always a small fraction of investors—3% in the recent financial crisis–—who sell everything, so there’s always someone to interview about getting out of the market. But they aren’t typical investors. Most investors making a change in a falling market shift a small amount away from equities; others actually buy stocks as the market is falling.

This is exactly the perspective to keep in mind if market turbulence continues.

Note: All investments are subject to risks.

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