Market preview: What to remember as we move past a quarter to forget

Quarterly Investment Guide 2020-7yellow_article
Illustration by Jamie Cullen

This article is part of Fortune‘s quarterly investment guide for Q2 2020.

You’re sitting on the couch watching the news. It’s depressing. Coronavirus infections are climbing, the markets are sinking. You reach for your smartphone to check on your portfolio. Gulp. Red flashes across the tiny screen. What do you do? 


Be bold, and buy on the dip?

Hold tight?

All three moves qualify as a strategy, but that’s hardly comforting. 

We just came out of the worst first quarter ever. It was the Dow’s weakest quarter overall since 1987, the year of the infamous Black Monday crash. And you have to go back to the height of the 2008 financial crisis to find a stretch this bad for the S&P 500. 

And it wasn’t just equities. Commodities tanked. Crude fell 60% as global travel ground to a halt, factories went on lockdown, and the global workforce slept in, with nowhere to go. In a sign of extreme investor jitters, the yield on 10-year Treasury notes bombed downward 122 basis points as the unthinkable—zero-bearing rates—became a distinct possibility. At its worst, what the markets were saying was clear: a return of zero beats losses.

The move to shutter factories and ground global travel to minimize the spread of the coronavirus outbreak sank crude oil futures and global equities in the first quarter.

But now, here’s some good news. While the S&P 500 fell 21% in the first quarter (see chart), the performance over the past two weeks shows a far different story. Between the March 23 close and the April 6 close, the S&P 500 is up 19%. If only you had listened to that voice saying, “Be bold.”

But in a volatile market, it makes no sense to second-guess your moves. Even the pros get it wrong. And, more important, 99.99% of investors are not professionals themselves. So stop kicking yourself!

“Most people don’t have enough expertise in financial markets. It’s not their job,” says Nicholas Economides, a professor of economics at NYU Stern School of Business. Add a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that causes a global crash, and you quickly see armchair 401(k) investors are in over their head in choppy waters. 

What does Economides advise? In markets like this, he says, don’t swim with the sharks. Wait for calmer waters: “Why wait and see? If you don’t have expertise in something, it’s kind of foolish taking action that could be completely wrong.”

Every investor’s risk profile is different. Some can afford to try to time the rebound to maximize the gains. Others will have to wait until the markets settle into a range before plotting the next move.

In fact, experts say, rather than timing the “rally” or the “upswing,” a better move is to time the “calm,” the point when the wild daily spikes flatten to more progressive—even dull—moves. 

Consider: Most market watchers are still trying to figure out how low this market can go, not how high it will soar. As such, JPMorgan Chase analysts recently noted that volatility has become an increasingly big metric for them. They watch the Cboe Volatility Index intently and match that with the coronavirus infection and death numbers. That calculus helped them arrive at a floor for the S&P 500 at around 2,100 (the closest the index came to that was 2,193 in the third week of March, before climbing). 

I know what you’re thinking. 2,100? We’re more than 20% above that right now. Could we fall back to that point?

Keep in mind: Bear markets have, on average, fallen by 32.7%. The deepest of all bears was the last one—spanning from 2007 to the depths of the global financial crisis in 2009. This time around, the S&P peak-to-trough drop was 34.1%; it’s recouped more than half that since the March 23 bottom.

What will Q2 bring?

The first quarter was marked by extremes. The S&P 500 hit an all-time high in February, and less than two weeks later was in correction territory. It then finished the quarter on a strong run. And yet there are a lot of concerns: record unemployment, a global recession, and a deadly global pandemic that hasn’t yet run its full course. 

It’s not a market for short-term returns. But the longer term view looks strong.

“Americans who have watched their investments and retirement savings plummet over the past few weeks might be wondering if they should take action to stem the bleeding,” said Kelly LaVigne, vice president of advanced markets for Allianz Life. “The good news is that, for the majority, calmer heads prevail, and many seem to understand that they need to take a longer-term view and try to ride it out.”

The latest Allianz Quarterly Market Perceptions Study asked investors how they feel about the future. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. A majority of respondents (63%) say they are worried about a recession, and over half (52%) say they’re too unnerved to jump back in and invest.

But zoom out a bit, and the sentiment gets more positive. “Nearly 70% believe that, even if the market continues to decline, they will have time to rebuild their retirement savings,” the report notes.

A sentiment most investors can live by.

Correction and update, April 7, 2020: This post has been updated to show the the S&P peak-to-trough drop was 34.1% (not 35%), and, that the S&P March 23—April 6 rally sent the index higher by 19% (not 24%).

More from Fortune’s Q2 investment guide:

5 rules to guide your investing decisions during the coronavirus pandemic
—Chasing returns: Why ‘inside the tent’ assets like corporate debt may be poised to outperform
—Q&A: State Street’s Lori Heinel on where she sees beaten-down buying opportunities during coronavirus
Best stocks to buy now: These 5 names will weather the coronavirus pandemic
—Why a bear market is the best time to ‘convert’ to a Roth IRA
The health of the economy in 7 charts
How to adjust your 401(k) during a bear market

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