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Can You Trust the Stock Market?

Chart-2linesIf you keep your life savings in certificates of deposit or a savings account at your local bank, that decision may be based on a common money script: “You can’t trust the stock market.” This belief about money can keep you from making the most of your retirement savings.

I was recently interviewed by Clark Palmer for a Bankrate article about money scripts. Palmer did quite a good job of explaining money scripts, the largely unconscious beliefs about money that we all hold and that affect our behavior around money. Many of these scripts are developed in childhood. Typically they are only partially true, but sometimes we follow them rigidly even in circumstances where they are not accurate. This usually doesn’t serve us well.

In describing the problems with adhering to rigid money scripts, Palmer made this statement: “For instance, distrusting the stock market would have made a lot of sense after the economy collapsed. Since the stock market has rebounded in the past few years, it no longer makes as much sense to distrust the stock market.”

This example actually replaces one money script: “You can’t trust the stock market,” with another: “You can’t trust the stock market in poor economic times, but you can trust it when the economy is doing well.”

This second script sounds like a recipe for exactly what many investors did during the recent recession. When the market crashed in 2008, they sold stocks, taking huge losses in order to move their nest eggs out of the frightening world of the stock market and into CD’s or money market funds that seemed more trustworthy.

Yet by getting out of the market, they missed the opportunity to have their holdings regain value as the market recovered. Their savings earned safe but meager returns and didn’t decline further in value, but they did lose purchasing power by never regaining their losses. Now, with the market back up and appearing more stable, it seems worthy of trust again, so some of these same investors are buying stocks. The trouble is, they are now paying a premium to get back into that “trustworthy” high market.

Does this mean the first money script, “You can’t trust the stock market,” is true after all?

Not at all.

What you can’t do is trust that the market will always go up. You can’t trust that it will always go down, either. You can’t trust stocks that provided high returns over the past ten years to do the same in the upcoming decade. You can’t trust investors to make decisions about buying and selling in logical ways based on economic principles—partly because many of those decisions are based on money scripts.

Nor can you trust yourself or anyone else to successfully time the market, buying at just the right low point or selling at the perfect high. This is true even though there is usually a “guru of the moment” who manages to do exactly that through sheer luck.

What you can trust is that the stock market will do what it has always done. It goes up and down in response to a complex set of economic, emotional, and political factors. The way to trust the stock market is to accept the reality of what it is.

Here, then, is my suggestion for a more accurate money script about the market: “You can trust the stock market to do what it does, which is fluctuate.” This is why the wisest strategy for most investors is to trust the market over the long term with a well-diversified portfolio.

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