I came nowhere near blowing up my investment portfolio this week. That’s in spite of the fact that I’ve used a somewhat popular trade in recent years that just imploded during the recent market selloff.
The only reason I didn’t was because of a few simple principles of investing that I’ll apply no matter what I’m buying. In anything from bullion, to cryptocurrencies to plain vanilla common stocks, I’m all about setting a buy limit and sticking to it.
This level of discipline works for a few reasons. Limiting the price you pay means you’re not chasing the market higher for anything. If you find yourself chasing the market higher, bad news: you’re already emotionally compromised and you’re making poor decisions with your money.
If you don’t overpay for something going in, it’s harder to lose money. Sure, sometimes you’ll end up buying something at a short-term market peak and it may take a few years to work out. Warren Buffett’s original purchase of the Washington Post company ended up being one of his biggest investment wins. But investing during the 1973-1974 bear market, the second worst post-war slump after the financial crisis meant that, for a while, he was sitting on losses of nearly 50 percent.
Really puts the past week’s market slide in perspective, doesn’t it?
That said, price is the one thing I’m the most disciplined about. And at the right price, I’ll invest in just about anything. That’s led me to a few interesting and profitable ideas.
One of those was cryptocurrencies. I put in a little bit of money, not for any fundamental value. Unlike investing in a company, there isn’t any. But with the revolutionary potential to decentralize money and provide other means of shifting capital around, it seemed like a worthwhile speculation. After the parabolic price move late last year, I cashed out my original stake. If things blow up from here, so what, I’m net-zero on that. If it rebounds and rallies from here, that’s fine by me too. Time will tell if that’s a smart trade or a dumb one.
As outlined in my most recent investment book, Safe, Debt Free and Rich, the dumbest decision I made was to sell volatility in recent years. After all, volatility isn’t really an asset, but it is mean-reverting. Trading between 17-20 on average, my disciplined approach was to only sell volatility futures if it was trading over 30, and scaling as it went up from there. You can catch the full details in the book—but shorting something that esoteric is pretty dumb. Yes, I know better, but I did it anyway.
While it was a dumb trade, thanks to my disciplined approach, it’s been a great one for me in the rare windows of opportunity I’ve had to use it. That’s because many traders have been perennially short volatility. Consequently, the Volatility Index, which essentially reads the bearishness of options trades on a scale of 1-100, got as low as 8. That was too much complacency in the market.
The past week’s selloff, briefly sending markets into correction territory of 10 percent, saw the VIX go from 9 to 50. The last time the VIX topped 50 was in March 2009 when the stock market finally bottomed out from the financial crisis!
If this is a run of the mill correction, then the VIX will drop from here and things will calm down. The VIX has gone from being undervalued to overvalued.
But people perennially shorting the VIX are out of luck. They may have made millions on the way up, but the piper called this week. One popular fund for shorting the VIX essentially went bankrupt this week, called in by its issuer.
I’ll admit, I prefer to see my investments only go up. I don’t want to have mistakes. I want to bat 1.000. Hey, we all do. Ideally, I’d only learn from the mistakes of others. But if you don’t make a few mistakes as an investor, you’ll never learn or get better.
This week, with the market going through a mini-crash in the span of a few trading days, it’s important to remember why we’re here. We’re here to send our money to where it’s treated best. Sometimes that’s betting on market volatility going back down to normal. Sometimes it might be betting on market volatility going up to normal.
Or you could avoid the fast-trading world of volatility, cryptocurrencies and their ilk. Instead, you could find quality companies and buy shares of them when they’re trading at a decent valuation. Stocks have spent several years trading at historically-high valuations thanks to ultra-low interest rates. But that era is ending. It’ll still be a stock picker’s market going forward—and one with better valuation opportunities going forward.
Buying a slow-moving company in a boring line of business may sound unexciting. But it’s also probably the smartest way to invest with the long-term in mind. Most short-term investing is betting on a price movement that may or may not go your way. That’s what makes so many of those trades challenging at best. But they’re usually just dumb.
This recent market tantrum is as good a time as any to go over your portfolio and take out any trades that look particularly out of place with your investment goals right now. The market’s gentle rally in 2017 may have led to a few trades or positions that made sense then, but don’t when thinking of your overall portfolio. There’s never a bad time to have some discipline in your portfolio.
Andrew Packer is a Senior Financial Editor with Newsmax Media. He currently writes the Insider Hotline investment advisory, serves as investment director for the Financial Braintrust, and writes the monthly newsletter Crisis Point Investor.
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