Planning for a Market Downturn


Because stock market crashes can be terrifying to contemplate, investors often avoid thinking about them at all-especially during long-running bull markets like the one we’ve seen these past 12 years.

Market downturns, or corrections, tend to happen when people least expect. Like a bad blizzard or dangerous hurricane, investors know another is likely to occur-but when and how big are anyone’s guess. Even though no one can predict when the next storm will hit, there are things investors can do to feel better prepared for the next severe market decline.

And contrary to human behavior, the best time to act is before the next market downturn occurs. Waiting until the winds start to gust, or the rain starts to fall, can be costly. So, what can investors do now to prepare for market volatility in the future?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that basic human instincts are at odds with what it takes to invest success­fully over the long term. After all, what did our ancestors do when faced with danger? It was either fight or flight. “Do nothing” probably wouldn’t have been a good strategy, but it’s exactly what most investors should do when a sharp downturn occurs.

Patience is key. As Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffet says, “The stock market is a device for transferring money from the impatient to the patient.” When markets are volatile, either up or down, it’s easy for investors to let emotions like euphoria or fear get the better of them, causing them to make impulsive investment decisions. Being aware of how emotions can impact decision-making is a great first step to avoiding making bad investment choices when a market decline does happen.

A well-known cognitive bias humans have is loss aversion. Put simply, people have a stronger negative reaction to losing money than they do a positive reaction to gaining the same amount. How does loss aversion play out for investors? It can cause investors to sell at their most panicked, when stock prices have already considerably declined.

When panic sets in and investors are tempted to sell, stop and ask:

  • Who is buying my shares?
  • Why would they buy my shares?
  • Could it actually be a good time to buy?

Asking these questions reminds one that there are two sides to every trade. And the person on the other side may be just as knowledgeable, or more so, on current and future economic conditions. Thinking about the answers to these questions can temper the urge to sell. Bear markets don’t pose the same “danger” that saber­toothed tigers did our ancestors. Pausing and thinking critically can help overcome the fight or flight instinct.

Knowledge of how markets have behaved in the past can be a highly effective tool for calming investor emotions or overcoming cognitive bias. What many investors don’t realize is just how quickly markets tend to bounce back after hitting bottom. In Figure 1, an analysis of bounce backs since 1926 shows that markets tend to rebound swiftly and strongly.

Selling during times of fear can cause investors to miss ut on the sizable recoveries that have historically followed downturns. Those who choose to stay invested tend to achieve higher returns over the long-term than those who cash out altogether or who exit the market near its lowest point, only to reinvest a year later (Figure 2).

Short-term volatility can be the wind that whips up investors’ emotions, but as Figure 3 shows, market highs and lows throughout the year are nearly always muted by the time the year ends. In other words, investors may want to resist the urge to sell (or buy) when emotions are running high. Instead, consider staying invested and focused on your long-term plan.


Preparing for an eventual market downturn is no different than prepping for any challenging event. A winning strategy includes practicing how you’ll react when the event occurs and having a plan to fall back on for when you’re less able to make rational decisions.

Understanding how emotions can impact deci­sion-making and knowing how markets have behaved during previous downturns and afterwards may help investors feel better prepared for the inevitable, yet unpredictable, market storm-and less anxious when the clouds do descend.