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Poke the Box: Dealing with Stock Market’s Moments of Terror

Let’s Start with Safal Niveshak
Revisiting the archives for some old posts on dealing with stock market turbulence…

Book Worm
Yesterday, I was re-reading what Buffett wrote in his 1987 letter to shareholders, which I believe is one of the most important texts ever written on how to become a sensible stock market investor. As a student of value investing, you must have read what follows several times. But then, such super-texts need several readings, and then several more.

Here is what Buffett wrote …

Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success. He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his.

Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market’s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains.

At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him.

Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you.

But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don’t belong in the game. As they say in poker, “If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”

Ben’s Mr. Market allegory may seem out-of-date in today’s investment world, in which most professionals and academicians talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas. Their interest in such matters is understandable, since techniques shrouded in mystery clearly have value to the purveyor of investment advice. After all, what witch doctor has ever achieved fame and fortune by simply advising “Take two aspirins”?

The value of market esoterica to the consumer of investment advice is a different story. In my opinion, investment success will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets. Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the marketplace. In my own efforts to stay insulated, I have found it highly useful to keep Ben’s Mr. Market concept firmly in mind.

Following Ben’s teachings, Charlie and I let our marketable equities tell us by their operating results – not by their daily, or even yearly, price quotations – whether our investments are successful. The market may ignore business success for a while, but eventually will confirm it. As Ben said: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine.” The speed at which a business’s success is recognized, furthermore, is not that important as long as the company’s intrinsic value is increasing at a satisfactory rate. In fact, delayed recognition can be an advantage: It may give us the chance to buy more of a good thing at a bargain price.

The worth of these words remain as priceless as when they were written almost three decades ago.

Mr. Market continues to suffer from incurable emotional problems (oh yes, these are incurable problems you see!). And he remains endearing as he doesn’t mind being ignored.

Stimulate Your Mind

Forget the stock market for now, and consider some amazing content we read in recent times…

Poke of the Week – Dealing with Stock Market’s Moments of Terror

In his latest memo to clients, Howard Marks wrote this while describing the current situation in the stock market –

My buddy Sandy was an airline pilot. When asked to describe his job, he always answers, “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” The same can be true for investment managers, for whom the last few weeks have been an example of the latter. We’ve seen bad news and prices cascading downward. Investors who thought stocks were priced right 20% ago and oil $70 ago now wonder if they aren’t risky at their new reduced prices.

In the rest of the memo, he goes on to explain why Mr. Market – representative of the stock prices – has nothing valuable to offer to investors through his daily mood swings. As he writes –

Especially during downdrafts, many investors impute intelligence to the market and look to it to tell them what’s going on and what to do about it. This is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. As Ben Graham pointed out, the day-to-day market isn’t a fundamental analyst; it’s a barometer of investor sentiment. You just can’t take it too seriously. Market participants have limited insight into what’s really happening in terms of fundamentals, and any intelligence that could be behind their buys and sells is obscured by their emotional swings. It would be wrong to interpret the recent worldwide drop as meaning the market “knows” tough times lay ahead.

…It is the goal of some investors to sell on declines when the subsequent movements will be down, but “buy the dips” when the subsequent movements will be up. If you think you can tell which is which from watching the market movements themselves, then we – again – have a fundamental disagreement. Future price movements can only be predicted on the basis of the relationship between price and fundamentals. And, given the market’s short-term volatility and irrationality, this can only be done in the long-term sense. The market has nothing useful to contribute on this subject.

Predicting the subsequent movement of stock prices – or the next mood swing of Mr. Market, whether he will be in the best of his spirits or worst – is a loser’s game. Focusing on where the earnings and cash flows of the underlying businesses you own, or want to own, are going to go long term is what you must focus on.

Your behaviour and expectations are under your control, and so is the amount of risk you wish to take. Stock prices aren’t under your control and thus you must leave them at what they do best i.e., fluctuate.

“If owning stocks is a long-term project for you,” warns psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “following their changes constantly is a very, very bad idea. It’s the worst possible thing you can do, because people are so sensitive to short-term losses. If you count your money every day, you’ll be miserable.”


You don’t be miserable, for there’s much more to life than counting your wealth.

Be kind to others, and to yourself.

Stay happy, stay blessed and keep poking!

With respect,

Vishal & Anshul

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About the Author

Vishal Khandelwal is the founder of Safal Niveshak. He works with small investors to help them become smart and independent in their stock market investing decisions. He is a SEBI registered Research Analyst. Connect with Vishal on Twitter.


  1. Sunil kumar Sahu says:

    Fluctuation is the only constant in Share Market. Looking sky in different time period in a day will tell us how this earth bless us by showing look i am also not constant. We argue for small thing but hesitate to even say a word for thing which indirectly affects us. Think hard and enjoy fluctuation is going to make us Happy I think.

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