Where are we now? The cycle of market emotions

"Just like investment cycles, where markets move and investment options go up and down, it's important to know about the cycle of our emotions"

Stage 1: Optimism, thrill and euphoria

Investors all start with optimism. We commonly expect things to go our way, or we tend to expect a return for the risk of investing.

As expectations are met, it is common to get excited about the possibility of even greater returns and the excitement becomes thrilling as the returns exceed expectations.

At the top of the cycle is when investors experience euphoria. But it is here where investors are at the point of maximum financial risk. When we believe everything we touch turns to gold, we fool ourselves into believing we can beat the market, we cannot make mistakes, that excessive returns are common place and that we can tolerate higher levels of risk.

Stage 2: Complacency, denial, hope

The second phase of the cycle occurs when the market stops meeting our new lofty expectations and begins to turn. At first, we anxiously watch the market for any signs of direction. Anxiety turns to denial and then quickly to fear, as the value of the investments decline. Many people will then start to act defensively and may think about switching out of riskier assets to more defensive shares or other asset classes such as bonds.

Stage 3: Panic, capitulation, despondency

In the third phase of the cycle, the realities of a bear market come to the fore and an investor may become desperate. Many panic and withdraw from the market altogether – afraid of further losses. Those who persevere become despondent and wonder whether the markets are ever going to recover and whether they should be there at all.

Ironically, at these times, an investor will commonly fail to recognise they are actually at the point of maximum financial opportunity.

Stage 4: Scepticism, caution, worry

In the fourth stage of the cycle, investors may experience some scepticism when markets start to rise. They often have a sense of caution or worry, wondering if market growth will last. —and may be reluctant to invest money in the market at a point when prices are still relatively low and opportunities are attractive.

What are the consequences of this emotional roller-coaster?

Emotions turn rational investors into irrational investors. So it is important to remember that markets move and investments will always go in and out of favour.

Developed, diversified long-term financial plans are placed in jeopardy when investors are confronted by extraordinary events because we are guided by our emotions.

You can avoid the emotional roller coaster by being aware of the emotions you are likely to experience. The five most common behavioural pitfalls are:

  1. Overconfidence – when investors over-rate their ability to select winning shares or investment managers.

  2. Loss aversion – research indicates a loss causes about twice as much pain as a gain causes pleasure. During periods of market volatility investors experience the sense of loss more acutely.

  3. Chasing past performance – we see this time and time again, but unfortunately, individual investors who are abandoning a well-diversified portfolio for bonds, or even cash, may be jeopardising their future financial security.

  4. Timing the market – research shows that no-one can accurately time the market.

  5. Failure to rebalance – the risk/return characteristics of an investor's portfolio should be independent of what's happening in the market and this means selling high and buying low.

The temptation to fall into one of these traps can be resisted by developing and committing to a well defined, long-term investment plan. This is the best way to protect yourself from your emotions.

Where is the market right now on the emotional roller-coaster?

It’s late in the market cycle, with evidence of thrill and euphoria up to January 2018 and potentially signs of complacency and denial as markets corrected early February. While there is uncertainty about whether this is the peak of the cycle, we believe the risks investors face are asymmetric - the downswing is inevitable. One thing is for sure – we’re nearer to the point of maximum risk than the point of maximum opportunity.

Without a solid process, there is the very real risk of being drawn into fear as markets peak and capitulating with despondency at the cycle bottom. Investors can’t afford these mistakes. Particularly given the grim outlook for longer-term returns told by high equity market valuations and low government bond yields.

At Russell Investments, our cycle, value, sentiment (CVS) investment decision-making process helps deal with this challenge. We step back from the current market psychology and have the discipline of breaking each decision into the three building blocks: is this asset class cheap or expensive, is the cycle a tailwind or headwind, is sentiment overbought or oversold?

Read more to see how these cycles have played out historically.