Value Investing: Overcome Your Fear, Don’t Be Doomed to Mediocre Returns

Part of an occasional series on Value Investing

Fear. It’s the one word that summarizes the emotion that grips investors when times are bad, really bad. Fear is the emotion that takes rational, prudent decision-making out of the investing process. It’s the whipsaw to the euphoria and overconfidence that comes when times are good, portfolios are fat, and almost every investment opportunity looks like a good one.

Warren Buffett famously said that his investment strategy was founded on seeing fear in the marketplace as a tremendous buying opportunity.

“We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful,” Buffett wrote in his 1986 Letter to Shareholders.

Berkshire Hathaway’s vice chairman, and noted investor, Charlie Munger, has long expounded that periodic steep market declines are inevitable, and that unwillingness to withstand them is the road to poor performance.

In a 2009 interview with the BBC, Munger said:

“This is the third time that Warren (Buffett) and I have seen our holdings of Berkshire go down, top tick to bottom tick, by 50%. I think it’s in the nature of long-term shareholding, of the normal vicissitudes in worldly outcomes and markets that the long-term holder has his quoted value of his stock go down by say 50%. In fact you could argue that if you are not willing to react with equanimity to a market price decline of 50% 2-3 times a century, you are not fit to be a common shareholder and you deserve the mediocre result that you are going to get, compared to the people who do have the temperament who can be more philosophical about these market fluctuations.”

Diversification: Your Tool For Overcoming Fear

So, how can you overcome fear? It’s wired into us. It’s not intellectual, it’s emotional. It’s the flight part of fight-or-flight response. Overcoming fear is easier said than done, but here is a suggestion.

Trust the power of diversification. If you are buying index funds, such as S&P 500 index funds, know that the entire U.S. economy is not going away. It’s already survived the Great Depression, Great Recession, and a host of lesser known financial crises that run all the way back to the Credit Crisis of 1772. As, Charlie Munger pointed out, you have to expect that steep price declines will happen a number of times during your lifetime.

Warren Buffett has always believed in the power and resilience of the U.S. economy. He points out that in his own lifetime it has survived World War II and a host of other challenges, including over a decade of inflation in the 1970s and early-1980s, when mortgage rates peaked at over 18%, and has come back stronger.

“Anything can happen to stock prices tomorrow. Occasionally, there will be major drops in the market, perhaps of 50% magnitude or even greater,” Buffett said in an interview on CNBC in February. He urged investors, even small investors to see price declines for the opportunity that they are.

Remember it’s buy low and sell high, not the other way around.

The resiliency and long term strength of the U.S. economy, in other words the power of businesses as a whole to meet needs and solve problems, enabled the Dow Jones Industrial Average to not only survive a loss of 90%, but to rise from its Great Depression doldrums of a low of 41.22 to the record high 29,551.42 set on Feb. 12, 2020.

As shocking as a DJIA number in the 40s seems to us today, it’s not the Dow’s all-time low, which was 28.48 on August 8, 1896. Thus, you don’t need a century of lifespan to prosper investing in the stock market. An investor that prudently bought at 28.48 in 1896 was still up roughly 45% when the DJIA hit its depression era low.

Given enough time, the strength of the economy has proven time and time again the value of investing in equities.

“Most people are savers, they should want the market to go down. They should want to buy at a lower price,” Buffet notes.

So, get a hold of your fear and turn it into the courage to see the opportunity that is right in front of you.

© 2020 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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