ETF: Volatility explored

In ETF Blog, Latest by Kristia van Heerden

In investing, the biggest assumption we make is that risk is rewarded. If you want your money to grow, the theory goes, you need to put something on the line. Risk is tricky, though. What is risky for one person might not be for another.

Volatility is a good starting point for ordinary investors to think about risk. Volatility refers to how much the price of something moves. If a share price changes often, we say the share is volatile. If it’s largely predictable, it’s not volatile.

A cash savings account with a fixed interest rate at a big financial institution is not volatile. You know how much you pay for the account, how much interest you’ll earn and the probability that the bank would close down. Some of these assumptions are part of your agreement with the bank, some are based on observations of the world around you. If the bank has been around for a long time and no banks recently shut down, you feel at ease leaving your money there. Your risk is very low because you can mostly predict what will happen to your money.

Shares are a different ball game. When there are more buyers than sellers, share prices go up. When there are more sellers than buyers, prices go down. Buyers and sellers make choices based on a range of factors. Hard facts can have as big an impact on a share price as fuzzy feelings. People who buy and sell shares can be influenced by news about companies, politics, the economy and even the weather. They also react to the financial results listed companies are required to publish every year.

World events that have nothing to do with individual companies can have a massive knock-on effect that can influence share prices. At the moment a global pandemic and oil price wars are causing an unusual amount of volatility in stock markets around the world. Many of us are seeing the impact of this volatility in our ETF portfolios. We are also learning painful lessons about drawdown recovery.

Volatility is a risk, because a share price may fall below what you paid for it and not recover by the time you need to sell your share. Sometimes you have no control over that. If a company goes belly-up, the share price won’t ever recover. You will lose money.

However, you do have some control over when you sell. When you have a long time to invest, you can mostly ignore short-term share price movements and wait for your share price to go up before selling. This is especially true for ETF investments. This is where the reward comes in. There is technically no upper limit to how much money you can make. Your stable bank account can only ever give you as much interest as you agreed to, while your volatile share can go higher in value indefinitely.

When markets aren’t very volatile, it’s easy to make assumptions about how we’ll react to this volatility. Current market conditions are an excellent way for us to put those assumptions to the test. In this volatile time, take note of your emotions when you check your portfolio. If you have an idea about how you’d set up your portfolio differently if you knew what was coming, write it down. Since markets are down, try to avoid selling any investments that are in the red right now. Once the markets are less volatile, you can revisit these ideas and implement the good ones. 

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