How to handle share price falls

Making sensible decisions whilst we’re anxious and emotional is the challenge in investing.

Making sensible decisions whilst we’re anxious and emotional is a challenge. In fact, I’d say this is the challenge in investing.

Too often we act with a rashness that ultimately proves expensive; we panic sell in the face of further price falls; we miss the opportunity to increase our exposure at even lower prices; and we double-down when we shouldn’t, each of which can deliver long, sleepless nights.

With the ASX losing 4% on Monday and down again today - and having declined 14% since the end of April - many investors are making these kinds of mistakes right now.

That’s understandable. But it’s also the reason why most investors don’t beat the market. They react poorly in stressful times like this, not just lacking the courage to buy when trouble hits but sometimes bailing out of the market entirely.

So, how should you deal with rapidly falling share prices?

1. Think about the particular, not the general

Very few stocks swim alone. Whether markets rise or fall, most will be dragged along in the current. We should try to accept this, separating the general from the particular.

When a stock is worth buying it should be because it is cheap, that it features a margin of safety and will deliver attractive long term returns. If that’s the case with the stocks you own, all things being equal, falling markets should be cause for enthusiasm rather than concern.

If you are going to worry about a stock that has fallen, do so with regard to its particular business, not the general state of the market.

2. You can’t pick share price bottoms.

Price falls after you buy a stock are inevitable. Investors unable to accept this fact are effectively saying it’s possible to pick share price bottoms, which it isn’t.

Avoid the self-referential wall of mirrors in which share price fluctuations exist and let the difference between the price of a stock and the value at which it trades be your guide.

Once you accept that share price bottoms can’t be picked, logic suggests that stocks can and will fall in price once you’ve purchased them. It happens and it’s unpleasant but if your original analysis was correct, why worry about cheaper prices?

3. You will be wrong. Get over it.

Whilst a falling share price after purchase doesn’t necessarily make your decision a poor one, it doesn't make it right, either. If investing is a science it is more akin to economics than maths or physics. Facts change, senior managers leave and new competitors spring up. A changing environment makes mistakes inevitable; don’t beat yourself up over them.

No investor has become wealthy without first losing substantial sums of money. The difference between those that succeed and those that fail is not in the mistakes they make but what each takes from them. You will be wrong. Accept it, learn from the experience and move on.

4. When evidence suggests you are wrong, act

Dyed-in-the-wool value investors rely on their contrary instincts, backed by deep, sturdy analysis. When they experience a falling share price, which might call in to question their argument to buy, they tend to disregard it.

Less experienced investors run the risk of falling victim to confirmation bias, seeing further price falls as confirmation of their concerns.

This is when the mistake is made. Each time you look at a stock do so with a fresh pair of eyes that assesses not just your argument to buy but the seller’s argument, too. If you find the seller’s argument more persuasive and the evidence against you, sell.

5. If the case still stacks up, buy more

The opposite situation is easier to deal with. If after examining the sell case the buy case still stacks up and the share price has fallen substantially, buy more (with a caveat).

6. Don’t shoot all your bullets at once

Knowing that share prices can be volatile should impact how you build a position in a stock. Making a number of purchases over time means you can take advantage of further price weakness, averaging down your entry price. Whilst it’s exciting to finally buy a stock that’s been on your shopping list, don’t dive in.

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