Small Change

Profit from stock market woes

Seize chance to buy tomorrow's winners at attractive prices

Last year, investors were warned by the astrologically-minded not to get "fleeced" in the Year of the Wood Goat now, mercifully, coming to an end.

Indeed, they would be richer today if they had heeded this advice, held onto their cash, and stayed out of the market completely.

Now that the Year of the Fire Monkey is upon us, we are told the monkey may be so full of mischief that we must take care not to trip over the various booby traps that it may set for us.

The element fire in the year, in Chinese astrological terms, suggests that we are likely to become frustrated and angry with these traps.

Such predictions in troubled times bring a smile to my face as I read them. They have no scientific basis, of course, but nevertheless offer a lighthearted take on the trauma that is rocking markets.

Few could doubt that more tough times may lie ahead for investors, but let's not forget the way many have done handsomely in recent years as the market rebounded after the global financial crisis.

Rather than running scared, investors should view such times of market volatility as a wonderful opportunity to test whether their financial planning and investment strategies are robust enough to navigate both good times and bad.

For myself, I am not perturbed at all by the drop in the value of my stock portfolio. Indeed, I see the market turmoil as a long-awaited correction that will give me a chance to buy more of the blue chips that I already hold.

Since 1986 when I started working, I have experienced at least five big market crises. The latest sell-off does not even come close to some of the hair-raising moments encountered during the 1998 Asian financial crisis or the global financial crisis 10 years later.

But then investors can be forgiven for feeling queasy and doing whatever they can to avoid the pain of loss on their investments. Making money by betting on the right investment is an exhilarating experience but the pain of losing our hard-earned money when an investment goes sour can be excruciating.

In such trying circumstances, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of the lessons learnt during the previous market meltdowns in 2007 and 2008 when wild price swings were also the norm, with investors pulling out billions of dollars from stocks.

I am not perturbed at all by the drop in the value of my stock portfolio. Indeed, I see the market turmoil as a long-awaited correction that will give me a chance to buy more of the blue chips that I already hold.

Lessons from that crisis include the following:

MARKETS MOVE IN CYCLES

In good times, investors will tend to chase after assets till they hit prices well beyond reason, but when financial calamity strikes, prices will tend to be depressed to unreasonable levels.

In other words, how a stock performs will depend largely on investors' expectations, rather than the income which its business is making for them.

FOCUS ON QUALITY

Companies with strong balance sheets, well-known brand names and powerful business franchises to generate cash are not immune from sell-offs, as the baby is often thrown out with the bathwater during market turmoil.

But this gives the discerning investor a wonderful opportunity to pick up tomorrow's winners because their stocks are badly mispriced by the sell-off and they will bounce back more quickly when sentiment improves.

CASH IS KING

One mistake made by many investors is to put so much money into the market in good times that when they are faced with a sudden downturn, they are strapped for cash and unable to pick up investments unfairly bashed down.

In contrast, by holding plenty of cash, even though it was earning next to nothing in interest in the bank, financial guru Warren Buffett had been able to make huge investments in General Electric and Goldman Sachs when their share prices plummeted as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis.

IMPOSSIBLE TO TIME THE MARKET

Market pundits often advocate a "buy low and sell high" strategy. If only life were so simple. Timing the market consistently is impossible and trying to do so can be very risky.

One good example would be the investors who were wrong-footed into selling at the height of the global financial crisis in 2008 and failed to jump back into the market fast enough when stock prices rebounded sharply subsequently.

This last lesson suggests that an investor may be better off nibbling at the blue chips he is comfortable with as stock prices plunge around him. This will enable him to keep some powder dry and continue buying even when his instincts and everyone else are yelling at him to sell everything in sight.

Sure as night follows day, bears and busts are part and parcel of the stock market, as are bulls and booms - and if he understands this well, he will be well on his way to making his first million dollars.

If the market loses its head, we have an opportunity to buy tomorrow's winners at an attractive price. Be sure to grab it.

Gong xi fa cai.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Profit from stock market woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe