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I'm not sure... Are You?

As investors, we’re accustomed to hearing about risk. There’s market risk, inflation risk, currency risk, and so on. No form of risk, though, challenges investors quite the way uncertainty can.

In my experience, how well we respond to uncertainty can be a key to long-term investing success. Of course, we never have the luxury of complete clarity when investing — none of us has a crystal ball, after all — but the current environment seems to have more than its fair share of uncertainty.

There are plenty of question marks over the global economy as the United Kingdom prepares to implement Brexit, the Trump administration rolls out its policies, central banks shift their thinking on monetary policy and interest rates, and growth — especially in China — continues to worry market watchers. A general feeling of unsettledness is reflected in many questions I’ve been getting from clients in recent months.

Confronting the challenge of the unknowable

First, a bit about the difference between risk and uncertainty. Risk can be measured, albeit not with 100% accuracy. An investor armed with the right data can calculate a reasonable probability of, say, a given company missing earnings expectations.

Uncertainty can’t be quantified that easily. There are “black swan” (that is, highly unusual) events that fall completely outside the realm of the expected. The data needed to make sense of such an event are either not known or unknowable.

In times of uncertainty, it’s easy for investors to make bad decisions. Markets often respond to surprise events with volatility. We had plenty of those in 2016, and I expect similar market-rattling events to occur this year.

Some investors may interpret volatility as a sign of trouble and flee to whatever they perceive as a safe haven. Others may see buying opportunities at every turn. Both are likely to fall prey to common investor biases like these:

  • Focusing on just the information that confirms our decisions.

  • Buying into the mistaken belief that past performance indicates future results.

  • Sticking to the familiar, at the cost of smart diversification.

The problem with these natural inclinations is that they can make us forget about our long-term investment plans. That’s never a good thing.

Help yourself avoid unforced errors

Sound investing was ingrained in me from an early age. My mother and father did a good job of saving for retirement by building a diversified portfolio. They recognized that diversification is the most logical response to a future that is, inevitably, uncertain. But my family, just like yours, can succumb to common biases.

In the 1990s tech boom, my mom, who has always paid close attention to the markets, wanted to invest in some of the high-flying companies of the moment. She had read about these and heard about them on TV, which confirmed her thinking that they were good buys. On a separate occasion, she also wanted to sell in March 2009, the low point for stocks in the financial crisis, just before the stock market rebounded. Those were scary times, and she was just trying to protect the nest egg she had so diligently built up over all those years. I’m happy to say she rethought both decisions.

None of us, of course, is immune from mistakes. I can fall into traps as well, so I’ve tried to develop habits that help me counter the biases that affect most of us as investors. These habits don’t require great investment acumen.

For example, I try to remove emotion from the investing equation. At the end of every year, I look at my retirement account and determine if I need to rebalance. Rarely, though, do I spend time trying to figure out why a certain fund over- or underperformed. I don’t want to be tempted by market noise.

Another way to cope with uncertainty: Save more. Just as we can’t know for sure where the markets are headed, we can’t predict when we might have to contend with a health or career setback. Putting away something extra isn’t easy, but it can give us the flexibility to make the most of bad situations.

The one thing we can be sure of

In investing, there is always going to be uncertainty — and a little pain. It’s as difficult to resist the urge to buy in a rising market as it is to continue to invest in a tumbling market. Likewise, short-term noise can tempt us to not rebalance on a regular basis. Disciplined rebalancing is vital to achieving long-term goals. To paraphrase the legendary American mutual-fund manager John Neff, the best time to invest can be when your stomach is churning most.

Because my portfolio is fully diversified, it always contains something that underperforms expectations. There are almost always surprises on the upside, too. This is the power of diversification and a “secret” to investment success.

Discipline is what it takes to block out the noise, commitment is what it takes to walk the path to financial success and patience is what it takes to reach the goal.

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