Keep emotions in check, examine portfolio and sell off bad buys to free up cash to invest in better-performing stocks
The turmoil in the global financial markets last month left even the rich worried over ways to keep the rest of their money safe after they took a big hit on their investments.
At one Chinese New Year luncheon, a senior banker in wealth management observed that this was the toughest time in his 28-year career.
Besides the pain of seeing part of his wealth evaporate, he also had to cope with anxious - and in some cases, angry - clients upset over the loss of their investments. All classes of assets were down since January and the only safe bet seemed to be gold, he added.
The same dour atmosphere pervaded a discussion I moderated at the Yale-NUS College for a private banking conference where the message from my fellow panellists was all gloom and doom.
Even the rebound in stocks and oil prices in the past fortnight has provided little cheer.
"I haven't changed my mind about the big picture. It still looks pretty awful," wrote Mr Lim Say Boon, DBS Bank's chief investment officer, who had been one of the panellists at the discussion.
Still, I wonder if this glum outlook is confined to people working in the financial sector and those writing about it. Based on my own observations, the broader economy is humming along just fine despite all the downbeat talk in the stock market.
While Orchard Road may feel a tad quiet after the boisterous Christmas shopping season, there are few signs of a slowdown; people are still willing to open their wallets and spend when the occasion warrants it. Just look at the tens of thousands of people who turned up recently for the Madonna concert at the Singapore Sports Hub, where tickets went for a few hundred dollars apiece.
It reminds me of the observation made by the late Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson 50 years ago that the stock market predicted nine of the last five recessions.
Jokes aside, I empathise with the seemingly insane obsession which investors have developed over the returns they are getting from their financial investments. The past eight years have simply been an awful time for many of us as we are forced to plough our hard-earned nest-eggs into riskier assets such as stocks because leaving the money in the bank gives us next to nothing in returns.
When times are good, we tend to surf the bull market all the way to the top, putting more and more of our money into shares, while forgetting that markets move in cycles and that prices may tumble one day.
Sometimes, we are lulled into complacency by investment advisers who tell us that it is okay to hold even 100 per cent of our assets in stocks if only to secure a bigger nest-egg when we retire because stocks will outperform all other forms of investments over a long period of time.
But as sure as night follows day, when the inevitable correction takes place, many of us will find ourselves panicking because we discover that we have too many shares in our investment portfolio and the loss in value - even on paper - can be too painful to bear.
This explains why, during a financial panic, people will sell their shares for all the wrong reasons - and at the wrong time.
The conventional advice to investors has always been to stay the course and ride out the market volatilities. That is fine if we are robots. But as human beings, we have emotions and in bear markets, fear can get the better of us.
One hard truth I have learnt is that successful investing requires a lot of psychology and this involves coming to grips with both my emotions as well as the emotions of others.
Over the past 20 years, I have experienced four huge bear markets and we may well find ourselves swept up in another major market calamity in the next five years, if not sooner.
For those who want to enjoy peace of mind and sleep soundly at night without worrying about the wild swings on Wall Street, this is an excellent time to take stock of your investment portfolio and do some spring-cleaning, now that the market has regained its poise after last month's sell-off.
I am sure that for many of us, there are stocks that we had bought on the spur of the moment because we got a hot tip from a friend or were sold a story by a broker on some exciting development in China that never took place.
We should again go through the rationale for buying the stock and if we are unable to satisfy ourselves, we may be better off selling it. After all, if a stock has underperformed in a bull market, why should it outperform in a bear market?
Even so, I find getting rid of the stock in one go - even when it is of no relevance to me any more - very difficult to accomplish. As such, my advice has always been that, confronted with this situation, an investor should just sell half of his holdings first.
Selling half of the investment helps an investor overcome the psychological logjam that comes from trying to decide whether to keep it or get rid of it completely.
Besides freeing up cash that can be used to invest in better-performing stocks, it also ensures that we don't do anything silly if share prices were to plunge further.
I also feel that there are more important priorities in life other than obsessing over our wealth or the returns we get from our investment portfolio.
During the Chinese New Year festivities, things were put into perspective for me when I learnt that an old acquaintance, Dr Michael Leong, who founded the financial portal Shareinvestor.com, had died after battling cancer while another long-time acquaintance who used to run a big-listed firm until recently is fighting for his life with kidney cancer.
Both of these men had incredibly successful careers. They had also amassed tidy fortunes but their traumatic medical problems are a reminder that while money is important, it is not everything.
Each of us has only one life to live. Health and loved ones should come first.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Too much money in stocks? Time to spring-clean'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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