Semi-Annual Shareholder Letter
March 31, 2018
Market volatility has returned from an extended vacation, resulting in a roughly 10% correction for the S&P 500 since its January high and a -0.8% decline for the 1st quarter of 2018. This was the index’s first 10% correction in two years, and it broke a streak of nine consecutive quarterly gains dating back to the 3rd quarter of 2015.
For context, we should note that last year’s stock market performance was unusual for both its strength and smoothness. The S&P 500 returned 21.8% in 2017, delivering its best year since 2013 and its third-biggest yearly gain since the end of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Meanwhile, the index experienced only eight daily price moves of at least 1% in all of 2017, the fewest since 1972. By way of comparison, in all calendar years since 1950, the index has experienced an average of 50 daily swings of at least 1% (up or down) and eleven single-day moves of at least 2%.
So far in 2018, stock investors have been subjected to a more turbulent ride. Just through the first week of April, the S&P 500 has already experienced 28 daily moves of at least 1% and eight daily moves of 2% or more. While there is some truth to the old tongue-in-cheek Wall Street adage that proclaims, “Everyone can accept unlimited (upside) volatility,” we humans tend to greatly dislike downside volatility. In fact, as first described in 1979 by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, the behavioral principle of Loss Aversion compels us to abhor losses roughly twice as much as we enjoy the equivalent amount of gains. Some psychologists believe that this tendency is rooted in our evolutionary profile. Consider that our distant ancestors often found themselves on the edge of finding enough food to survive. In that kind of harsh environment, the loss of a week’s worth of food could mean death. On the other hand, gaining an extra week of food would not necessarily translate into an additional week of life (especially prior to the development of food storage and preservation techniques).
Successful investors know that price volatility is an essential component of producing competitive long-term returns. At the risk of oversimplifying finance theory, the fact that stock prices tend to exhibit lots of short-term undulations is a big part of the reason that stocks tend to generate superior long-term returns when compared to low-volatility assets like cash and bonds. Warren Buffett put it thusly in his 2014 annual shareholder letter:
“It is true, of course, that owning equities for a day or a week or a year is far riskier (in both nominal and purchasing-power terms) than leaving funds in cash-equivalents. For the great majority of investors, however, who can – and should – invest with a multi-decade horizon, quotational declines are unimportant. Their focus should remain fixed on attaining significant gains in purchasing power over their investing lifetime. For them, a diversified equity portfolio, bought over time, will prove far less risky than dollar-based securities… If the investor, instead, fears price volatility, erroneously viewing it as a measure of risk, he may, ironically, end up doing some very risky things.”
Unfortunately, many investors react poorly to the emotional swings caused by short-term price movements. Extensive evidence shows that they make short-term decisions that run contrary to their long-term goals, including over-trading and/or re-jiggering their portfolio exposure to stocks at inopportune times. This type of behavior can have very negative long-term effects on an investor’s overall performance.