• Revenue Cycle Management
  • COVID-19
  • Reimbursement
  • Diabetes Awareness Month
  • Risk Management
  • Patient Retention
  • Staffing
  • Medical Economics® 100th Anniversary
  • Coding and documentation
  • Business of Endocrinology
  • Telehealth
  • Physicians Financial News
  • Cybersecurity
  • Cardiovascular Clinical Consult
  • Locum Tenens, brought to you by LocumLife®
  • Weight Management
  • Business of Women's Health
  • Practice Efficiency
  • Finance and Wealth
  • EHRs
  • Remote Patient Monitoring
  • Sponsored Webinars
  • Medical Technology
  • Billing and collections
  • Acute Pain Management
  • Exclusive Content
  • Value-based Care
  • Business of Pediatrics
  • Concierge Medicine 2.0 by Castle Connolly Private Health Partners
  • Practice Growth
  • Concierge Medicine
  • Business of Cardiology
  • Implementing the Topcon Ocular Telehealth Platform
  • Malpractice
  • Influenza
  • Sexual Health
  • Chronic Conditions
  • Technology
  • Legal and Policy
  • Money
  • Opinion
  • Vaccines
  • Practice Management
  • Patient Relations
  • Careers

Don't let volatility hurt your stock returns

Medical Economics JournalMedical Economics June 2024
Volume 101
Issue 6

Significant wealth from the stock market has been accumulated by people who don’t do anything most of the time.

Dave Gilreath: ©Dave Gilreath

Dave Gilreath: ©Dave Gilreath

From the way some talking heads and advisers characterize market volatility as a scourge for stocks, it’s understandable that many investors fear it as much as a case of long COVID-19.

Volatility gives individual investors the heebie-jeebies because they think it irrevocably damages stock portfolios.

There’s damage, all right. This damage comes not from volatility itself but from many investors’ reactions to it.

Volatility is widely misunderstood. It’s when an investment varies widely in price over a relatively short period. Relatively stable prices mean low volatility. High volatility is when investments rapidly yo-yo up and down from one week, day, hour or minute to the next.

There’s always some volatility in the stock market. Equities and indexes rise or fall in jagged, not diagonal, lines on the chart. Although the market sometimes goes long periods without becoming herky-jerky, high volatility is like rain: The question isn’t whether it will occur, but when.

Recently, market volatility registered an uptick. In mid-April 2024, the S&P 500 index declined approximately 5% but then bounced back a bit, ending the month down approximately 2%. As of this writing in the first week of May, major indexes rose further.

Pacific period

This mild spate of volatility was a mere swell in the current, relatively pacific period that has set in since high volatility roiled the market in 2022.

Such low volatility is usually associated with high forward returns. Yet this connection isn’t really important to truly long-term investors, who can afford to be statistically aloof to such market indicators.

Historical trends indicate that the market probably won’t be particularly volatile for the rest of the year. Presidential election years are usually positive for the market. In such years, the average total market pullback is 10%, compared with 14% in non-election years. So if historical patterns hold true, the rest of the year will be short on volatility and produce better-than-average gains.

But in any kind of year, volatility is mistakenly viewed as some kind of curse. Some investors are so afraid of it that their blood pressure varies inversely with the market’s movements.

Inured to volatility

However, some experienced investors are apparently inured to volatility. Nearly four in ten (39%) surveyed in 2023 said they don’t worry about it. A majority of millennial respondents said volatility keeps them up at night, compared with only 15% of older investors.

So for these older investors, volatility is less of a problem, probably because they’ve seen a lot more of it. If it’s always a potential factor that you account for in your investing strategy, goes the implicit logic, volatility won’t be a problem.

Many investors make money off the stock market by ignoring transitory price fluctuations. Instead, they leverage long-term market performance, which historically has been up more than down on average over the ultralong term. In other words, they wait and do nothing — a practice that’s anathema in American culture because we prize action and dynamism. Americans seem to live by the mantra, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” Like Superman, we want to save the day.

Yet significant wealth from the stock market has been accumulated by people who don’t do anything most of the time. Like Warren Buffett, they just wait for stocks to grow. As Buffett quipped, “Lethargy bordering on sloth remains the cornerstone of our investment style.”

Buffett’s phenomenal investing success shows that doing nothing can bring rich rewards. Yet Buffett, also known as the Oracle of Omaha, has been known to actually do something amid high volatility: He adds shares of high-conviction stocks at low prices. Some individual investors do this, but study results have shown that most end up selling when volatility pushes values down. Unfortunately, they habitually buy high and sell low.

“If the investor fears price volatility, erroneously viewing it as a measure of risk,” Buffett says, “[they] may, ironically, end up doing some very risky things.”

Not the same as risk

Buffett laments that risk and volatility are conflated at business schools. “Volatility is far from synonymous with risk,” he says. “Popular formulas that equate the two terms lead students, investors and CEOs astray.”

Some individual investors have adopted Buffett’s uber long-term approach, but Buffett has become one of the world’s wealthiest individuals by taking it to a sagacious extreme, holding stocks for years or even decades.

Of course, it’s easier to be patient if, like Buffett, you’re fabulously wealthy and are paid to invest the money of a huge company like Berkshire Hathaway.

Most investors lack Buffett’s patience, in many cases because limited resources, expenses, life goals and retirement horizons dictate otherwise, sometimes forcing them into ill-timed selling. But even within the limits of their individual constraints, many investors churn their portfolios much more than necessary.

Holding stocks over the long term isn’t a tough concept for most people to get their heads around. Yet it’s more easily said than done and requires great discipline. As Buffett has said, investing is like dieting: It’s simple to understand but difficult to accomplish.

Harnessing for gain

Volatility can actually be used to strengthen portfolios. If properly harnessed by using options — essentially, market-traded bets that stocks will rise or fall within a set period — volatility can more than compensate for the declines of underlying assets by producing portfolio income. Thus, options can serve as a form of insurance.

Options trading is a complex undertaking best left to qualified advisers. One strategy is to systematically overlay a program of options trading atop a major stock index, such as the S&P 500. This strategy has proved highly effective over long periods — e.g., 10 years — so it requires commitment from clients. For investors without advisers, there are various fund products (including exchange-traded funds known as ETFs) that use this strategy.

Investors who can stomach volatility are able to take advantage of buying opportunities created when prices are pushed down by the rash selling of the fearful. Thus they can build a portfolio more likely to grow over time.Although volatility is different than risk, the two are similar in this sense: If you can’t stomach either one, you shouldn’t be in the stock market.

Dave S. Gilreath, CFP, is a founder and chief investment officer of Sheaff Brock Investment Advisors, an investment firm for individual investors, and Innovative Portfolios, an institutional money management firm. Based in Indianapolis, the firms manage assets of approximately $1.4 billion. The investments mentioned in this article may be held by those firms, Innovative Portfolios’ ETFs, affiliates or related persons. There may be a conflict of interest in that the parties may have a vested interest in these investments and the statements made about them.

Recent Videos
Mike Bannon ©CSG Partners
Mike Bannon ©CSG Partners
Mike Bannon - ©CSG Partners
Mike Bannon: ©CSG Partners
Gary Price, MD, MBA
Claire Ernst, JD, gives expert advice
Claire Ernst, JD, gives expert advice
Claire Ernst, JD, gives expert advice