Individual investors try not to panic over big market gyrations

"'My friends are like: 'Oh my God, the world is ending.'"

  • By Dawn Lim, Daniel Kruger and Ira Iosebashvili,
  • The Wall Street Journal
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Alok Subbarao of San Mateo, Calif., is staying calm during the recent market declines.

The year-end stock selloff saddled major indexes with their worst annual decline since 2008 as concerns over global growth intensified, but retail investors are trying to hold on despite the intense volatility.

Some are even taking advantage of the rout, showing the type of support that in the past has helped boost a falling market. Money manager Fidelity, which is both an online brokerage and the country's largest 401(k) plan administrator, said its customers were buying more than they were selling in the period from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31.

For every sell order from Fidelity's retail brokerage clients in that period, there were also 1.25 buy orders, up from a buy/sell ratio of 1.21 in the year-ago period. Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) and Apple Inc. (AAPL) were among stocks that were in higher demand in the past week.

Ben Bowman was one of the retail investors who waded in. The 41-year-old website content director from Chicago said he bought Amazon shares three separate times in recent weeks as the company's tumbling stock price triggered orders he had set below the market price.

Mr. Bowman started investing in 2007, right before the financial crisis cratered markets around the world. Going through that selloff and participating in the subsequent recovery has made it easier to keep calm during the current volatility, he said.

"As long as you can stomach the headlines, when you come out on the other side you will be very, very happy," he said. "I appreciate the sale."

Mr. Bowman has had a lot to stomach recently. The last several weeks have seen stocks sell off broadly, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (.DJI) and S&P 500 (.SPX) both down around 9% in December.

The declines have recently been overshadowed by something even harder to make sense of: volatility. During a dizzying Christmas week, the worst-ever Christmas Eve selloff was followed by the biggest one-day point gain on record and an 871-point swing on Thursday. The Dow changed direction 19 times during Friday's trading, ending the day down 0.3%.

For professional investors, times of heightened volatility can sometimes be a godsend. Some hedge-fund managers employ strategies that profit from increased price anomalies, while bank trading desks stand to profit as clients ramp up new equity bets or pile on hedges. Notably, equity-trading desks at the largest U.S. banks are set to record their biggest revenue year since the financial crisis.

Retail investors are more likely to buy and hold stocks and funds, shunning strategies that profit from increased volatility. They often pull money from the stock market during periods of significant stress.

While many have tried to stay calm, it has proven a challenge. "It's been pretty crazy," said Alok Subbarao, a 28-year-old professional services engineer from San Mateo, Calif. "My friends are like, 'Oh my God, the world is ending' and telling me to sell."

Mr. Subbarao has so far resisted the urge to cash in his portfolio, which is still up thanks to timely investments in biotech firm Sangamo Therapeutics Inc. (SGMO) and other earlier stock picks.

Making it harder for Mr. Subbarao has been his investment history: He first purchased bitcoin at around $1,100 and failed to sell when the cryptocurrency's price nearly hit $20,000. He still holds bitcoin, which traded Tuesday around $3,770.

"There's a sense of 'Oh no, it's happening again,'" he said.

Mr. Subbarao isn't sure what he would do if markets resumed their decline.

"Plan one is to hope that doesn't happen," he said.

At Newton, Mass.-based Adviser Investments, nine of the firm's clients made portfolio changes on Dec. 27 in response to market conditions. Of those, three pared back equity risk, three wanted to increase equity exposure and three wanted to shift their portfolios entirely into cash.

The $5.5 billion investment adviser is encouraging clients with spare change to take advantage of December's market decline to buy stocks. "If you've got a little extra cash to buy stocks on sale, why not do that?" said Daniel Wiener, chairman of the firm and founder of the Independent Adviser for Vanguard Investors newsletter.

Looking beyond the past month, retail investors largely put less new money into stocks and purchased more short-duration bond funds, a sign of concern about interest-rate increases.

Noninstitutional net inflows into U.S. ultrashort-duration bond funds rose to over $65 billion in the first 11 months of 2018, a record high for that period since 2000, according to data estimates from Morningstar Inc.

At the same time, retail net inflows into money-market funds for that period were the highest in a year since 2008, according to data estimates from Morningstar.

Christine Erickson counts rising rates from the Federal Reserve as one of her biggest worries.

The 75-year-old retired software developer said she is also worried about trade, tariffs and a sense of mismanagement from Washington. All of those concerns have been cited by market professionals as major reasons behind December's market declines.

Ms. Erickson has a portfolio with about $2.5 million that is split about 50-50 between stocks and bonds or cash, all held in various mutual funds in her Vanguard account. She has lost about $200,000 since September.

So far, the selloff and volatility aren't fazing her. "I've seen a lot of this," she said from her home in Albuquerque, N.M.

Her first investing experience was putting about $7,000 in Fidelity's Magellan fund (FMAGX) at the beginning of 1987. After the crash in October 1987, she remembers calling the Fidelity customer-service center to ask about her account. The representative suggested she sit down before he told her that she had lost about 20% that day. She cashed out.

"Last January was what surprised me," she said. "It seemed like everybody used the tax cut as an excuse to buy stocks."

She is more comfortable with current valuations and is going to wait until mid-January to see if the market remains closer to Dow 22,000 than 26,000. If it does, she plans to add about $30,000 to one of her funds. Her belief is that a weak December typically leads to a strong January.

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