Have we hit capitulation yet? It has been a while since we've dragged out the investor sentiment cycle, but when the head of investment strategy for AMP Capital Investors, Dr Shane Oliver, included it in his latest newsletter, it seemed time for another look.
Markets are only partly driven by fundamental considerations such as value and dividend yields.
Their real impetus comes from emotions such as fear and greed.
And while those emotions can seem erratic over the short term, in the longer term, investor psychology is highly predictable.
As the graph shows, investors go through a roller-coaster of emotions in the typical market cycle.
Rising share prices spark a sense of optimism, which fast accelerates into excitement and the thrill of watching investments grow.
The top of any boom is characterised by euphoria when we think nothing can go wrong. This is the boom that will go on forever, and while we'd be smart to run for the doors when people start talking about "new paradigms" and how "this time it's different", most of us don't want to know. We've become overconfident, believing that our success is due to our own skill, not the fact that any idiot can make money in a raging bull market. And greed has well and truly kicked in, promoting us to chase more.
Rationally, this is the most dangerous point in the investment cycle. Prices become overvalued and the average investor is blind to the early warning signs. But no one wants to know.
When the market does inevitably take a turn for the worse, emotions spiral downwards through anxiety, denial (that's where the "I'm a long-term investor, I don't need to worry" bit is strongest), and, eventually, fear, depression and panic.
But it's not until investors give up hope that the cycle moves back into an upswing.
The bottom of any market cycle is characterised by capitulation and despondency. Just as investors believed the bull market could go on forever at the top of the cycle, they start to believe the bad times are here to stay. That's when you start to hear people talking about getting out of the sharemarket. Permanently. Because no matter what the pundits say, things aren't going to change. And just as the most dangerous time to invest is when markets are euphoric, the best investment opportunities arise when they are despondent.
In the 1970s, the long bear market led to pronouncements that equities were dead. Oliver reckons that is where we are again now.
The only problem is that while the psychology remains the same, no two market cycles are identical. And while you can be guaranteed that we will eventually move back to hope and optimism, there are no guarantees on how long it will take.
After an initial period of denial following the global financial crisis, markets have now woken up to the fact that Europe, and indeed most Western economies, will only truly recover when they have their debt under control. That will be a long and painful process.
Preserving capital makes sense when ongoing volatility is a high probability. As the investment director at Fidelity Worldwide Investment, Tom Stevenson, recently pointed out, if you lose a third of your money, you have to grow what you have left by 50 per cent to get back to where you started.
The fact that the big stocks are now highly correlated has also made short-term stock-picking profits hard to come by. The good gets trashed along with the bad.
But as Stevenson says, there are still excellent businesses out there with fantastic prospects. While shares in those companies won't bounce back immediately, he says in 10 years you might well look back and think this was a good time to invest in these long-term winners.
Oliver argues this period of poor returns isn't new it's just something that markets do.
And as such, giving in to despondency can mean missing out on opportunities. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious, but he says it would be dangerous to write off equities altogether.
Five ways to handle volatility
1. Keep calm the worst thing investors can do is to overreact to market volatility. They will usually respond more slowly than the markets as a whole, ending up late to the party when markets rise and bailing out after markets have already corrected.
2. Don't blow things out of proportion the euro zone accounts for only about 10 per cent of the overall market value of global sharemarkets. Even in Europe, many of the largest companies continue to do well, protected from problems on their doorstep by successful operations around the world and especially in the faster-growing emerging markets.
3. Diversify investments should be well spread between different asset classes, such as equities, bonds, commodities and cash.
4. Consider price the average multiple of a company's earnings that a share price represents is actually cheaper than at any point since the late 1980s. Only at the bottom of the market in March 2009 were shares much cheaper on this basis than they are today.
5. Stick with it regular saving forces you to invest when the market has fallen and you instinctively prefer to walk away.
Source: Tom Stevenson, Fidelity Worldwide Investment