Most Americans are afraid to invest in a stock market downturn. Here’s why that's wrong.

·7 min read

Most Americans are afraid to invest in a stock market downturn. Some worry they’ll lose their money, while others say they lack confidence in how to invest, financial experts say.

But that reluctance to embrace investing when markets drop may cost Americans when it comes to their future retirement savings, and possibly prevent them from building a bigger nest egg, those experts caution.

About 74% of Americans, for instance, say they wouldn't stay invested if the stock market suffered a moderate or big decline, according to a recent study of 3,000 U.S. adults conducted by Vise, a technology-powered investment management platform built for advisers.

After a historic crash in March 2020, stocks rose to records and have continued an upward trajectory following unprecedented aid from the Federal Reserve and Washington to shore up the economy amid the worst global pandemic in a century.

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The recent declines in the stock market could give investors an opportunity to scoop up more stocks at lower prices, or at least hold steady in their retirement accounts, money managers say.

“If you’re a long-term investor complaining about an expensive market, this may be your opportunity to bargain hunt,” Lindsey Bell, chief investment strategist at financial services company Ally Invest, said in a note to clients. “But oftentimes, sitting tight and doing nothing is best if you are in it for the long haul.”

Americans fear market crashes, but they shouldn't panic

While October is often considered a spooky month for investors, developing a bad reputation following the crashes of 1929 and 1987 and the tumult of 2008, September has actually been the worst month for the stock market, averaging a 0.4% decline, according to the Stock Trader’s Almanac.

Although stocks have rebounded from last Monday’s losses, when the Dow Jones industrial average shed 614 points, the major averages had a rough start earlier this month and remain mildly lower in September.

Early in the week, investors worried about global growth and possible damage to markets from indebted real estate developers in China. Those fears, however, subsided after Evergrande, one of China’s biggest real estate developers, said it would make a payment due Thursday.

The S&P 500, the benchmark used to track most mutual funds, has surged 100% since the pandemic-fueled sell-off in March 2020, which has included a rally of more than 35% since November without a single pullback of 5% or more.

That’s an unusual feat of strength, experts say, considering the S&P 500 has gone through an average of two pullbacks of 5% or more per year since 1950, according to Bell. That means stocks are likely overdue for a pullback following a strong run, she added.

Investors should use a decline in the market as an opportunity to look for quality stocks that are now “on sale,” according to Daniel Milan, investment adviser at Cornerstone Financial Services, a financial planner in Southfield, Michigan.

Those who sat on the sidelines during the market turbulence last year lost out on hefty gains.

Young investors also have more time to absorb and make up for losses in the market, financial experts say.

“Remember, investing isn’t a race, it’s a marathon,” Milan said in a note.

Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, are poised to become the most important driver of the U.S. economy over the next two decades as America's largest generation begins to build families and enter their peak earnings years, according to Thomas Lee, managing partner and head of research at Fundstrat Global Advisors. He called last year's market rebound before most others.

The demographic shift is poised to deliver strong stock market returns in that span, Lee said in a note to clients this summer. In June, Lee forecast that the S&P 500 could trade as high as 19,350 by 2038, which would equate to a rise of 335% from Thursday's close.

Many retail investors still 'buy the dip'

Some Americans, particularly young investors, feel anxiety when they think about investing in the stock market. About 43% say they aren't confident about investing, data from Vise showed. Investors over 65 were the most optimistic, with 59% saying they were “very” or “somewhat” confident in investing, compared with 44% of Gen Zers.

The GameStop “short squeeze” frenzy earlier this year spurred renewed interest in stock trading including first-time investors. In the first half of 2021, Fidelity Investments saw 2.3 million new retail accounts opened by investors 35 or younger.

And many amateur investors this week took advantage of "buying the dip,” a strategy where they scooped up stocks that had dropped in price and became cheaper following Monday’s rout.

Individual investors scooped up a total of $4.84 billion worth of assets since Monday, Bloomberg reported, citing data from Vanda Research, a firm that tracks U.S. retail-trading flows.

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“Buy the dip” has been Wall Street’s mantra for much of the past decade. It has gone more mainstream and even popped up on Twitter’s trending topics. That mindset has worked well at times. From March 2009 to February 2020, the S&P 500 more than quadrupled while enduring just four drops of 10% or more, according to Ally Invest.

The economy is recovering and corporate profits are growing once again, and despite the challenges with COVID-19, investors are feeling more hopeful about the future.

But the "buy the dip" strategy may be coming up against some challenges in the near term since the market may face heightened volatility as the Fed starts tapering its bond purchases soon, according to Bell.

The Fed on Wednesday kept its extraordinary policies in place for a little longer. That had included a broad array of actions to help limit the economic damage from the pandemic. The central bank signaled it would plan to begin tapering its bond buying stimulus by year’s end and possibly raise interest rates in 2022, a year earlier than it had expected.

Stocks still look pricey to some while others find buying opportunities

Now that stocks are back near records, it may not be a good time to “buy the dip” because most stocks remain pricey for investors, argues George Ball, chairman of Sanders Morris Harris, an investment firm based in Houston.

After falling last Monday nearly 5% below its Sept. 2 record, the S&P 500 is sitting just under 2% below its all-time high, while the Dow and Nasdaq are within 2.4% and 2.1% of their respective peaks.

With investments, the golden rule is “buy low, sell high,” financial experts say. Some investors face a fear of missing out to cash in big on everything from GameStop to cryptocurrencies. They don’t want to miss out on a payout, but are buying stocks that are still expensive, according to Mark Gorzycki, an investor behavior expert and co-founder of OVTLYR, a behavioral analytics tool for retail investors.

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“Buying the dip has been a good, even great strategy for the past decade, but sooner or later it won't be,” Ball said in a note to clients, who suggested to wait until the stock market saw a decline of at least 20% from its recent peak to buy shares of financial stocks that would be poised to benefit from a rise in interest rates.

But others, like Colin Scarola, vice president at investment research firm CFRA, have advised clients to snatch up shares of battered airline companies as the latest wave of COVID-19 cases potentially peaks, travel restrictions fade and travel demand returns.

"Now is an attractive time to buy airline stocks...as data from around the world signals air travel can recover pre-pandemic levels much faster than pundits expect," Scarola said in a note.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a stock market decline can expose issues with your portfolio, so if you’re poorly diversified, now is a good time to restructure, according to Milan of Cornerstone Financial Services.

“Don’t panic and sell,” Milan added. “The market goes through periods of decline. Selling during a down market can have bad consequences and missing the good swings can cost you.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stock market: Why it's wrong not to invest in a sell-off

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