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The vote by the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU) caught the majority of individual investors by surprise.  In fact, the so-called Brexit was not foreseen by many of the most sophisticated professional investors and money managers all around the world.  The election results sent shockwaves through the financial markets on the Friday and Monday following the Brexit vote.  The most notable effect was the devaluation of the pound to its lowest level since 1985.  Over the course of Tuesday through Friday, the US and European stock markets gained back nearly all their losses from the two days after the Brexit vote.  This fast-moving volatility has left individual investors feeling confused, frustrated, bewildered, and a bit scared.  However, the Brexit vote results offer individual investors a unique set of key lessons to learn and understand.

The four important lessons for individual investors from the Brexit vote are as follows:

  • 1)  There are very few seminal events in financial market history that affect the future path of stocks, bonds, and other assets.


The difficult thing to realize about the financial markets is that there are very few consequential events that make an inflection point or major change in the direction of the financial markets.  Even more frustrating than that, these consequential events are only known with the benefit of hindsight.  In other words, what seems like a monumental event today may or may not be considered one of those major events.  Given the fact that there are so few, there is a high probability that the seemingly major events of today will not fall into the seminal event category of financial market history.

What are some of the seminal events in financial market history?  Here is a list of some of the seminal events in chronological order:  the stock market crash in October 1987, the bursting of the bond bubble in 1994, the Asian contagion of 1997-1998, the bursting of the Internet bubble in March 2000, and the Great Recession of the financial crisis starting in September 2008.  There are many more examples previous to 1987, but these are events from recent financial market history that many individual investors will remember.  Keep in mind that in between all of these events are a string of other major events that turned out to be minor blips that caused only fleeting financial market volatility or none at all.

Furthermore, these seminal events are confusing to financial market participants in and of themselves.  For example, let’s take a closer look at the stock market crash of October 1987.  The US stock market dropped over 20% in one day, and things looked very dire.  If an individual investor with a portfolio of $100,000 had sold his/her stock mutual funds (primary investment vehicle used by individuals on the day of the crash, he/she would have a portfolio worth $80,000 approximately.  That type of individual investor was likely to be very fearful and stay out the of stock market for the remainder of 1987.  If an individual investor with a similar portfolio of $100,000 had keep his/her money in stocks on the day of the crash and for the rest of 1987, he/she would actually have roughly $102,000 at the end of 1987.  Why?  Well, there are not too many investors these days that remember how 1987 really turned out for the US stock market.  The S&P 500 index ended up about 2% for the year, so US stocks recovered all of the losses from the crash and a bit more.  Here’s a little fun exercise:  Ask your Financial Advisor or Financial Planner what the return of stocks was in 1987.  The vast majority will assume it was a horrible down year for performance returns.

Another excellent example is the bursting of the Internet bubble in March 2000.  The reason it is so interesting is that individual (and even professional) investors forget the history.  Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve during that time period, gave a famous speech where he coined the term, “irrational exuberance”.  Greenspan warned investors that the Internet and technology stocks were getting to valuations that were way out of line with historical norms for valuation of stocks.  What do individual investors forget?  Well, that famous speech was actually given in December 1996.  Yes, that is correct.  Greenspan warned of the Internet bubble, but it took nearly 3 ½ years before financial markets took a nosedive.  The main point here is that smart, rationale professional money managers and economists can know that financial market valuations are out of whack in terms of valuation at any given point in time.  (Note that this can also be stock market valuations that are too low).  However, these conditions can persist for far longer than anyone can imagine.  That is why individual investors should not be so quick to sell (or buy) major portions of their portfolio of stocks and bonds when these predictions or observations are make.

For a more in depth look at this concept, you can refer to a blog post I wrote three years ago on this very subject.  The link to that blog post is as follows:


  • 2)  Investors focus on valuations (no emotions) while traders and speculators focus on market sentiment (emotions) and valuation (no emotions).

The majority of professionals who talk to individual investors and provide advice will explain how important it is to keep emotions out of the equation when dealing with elevated market volatility.  When the financial markets are bouncing up and down by large amounts in the short term, it can be very difficult to keep a cool head and resist the urge to buy or sell stocks, bonds, or other assets.  The frenetic pace of market movements makes it seems as though an individual investor needs to do something, anything in response.  The standard advice is to keep one’s emotions in check focus on the long term, and stick to the financial plan.  What is usually missing from that advice is a more complete explanation why.

There are two general types of financial market participants:  investors and traders/speculators.  These two groups have vastly different goals and approaches to the financial markets.  Investors are focused on investing in stocks, bonds, and other assets in order to obtain returns over time from their investments.  The long term might be defined as five years.  Thus, day-to-day fluctuations in the financial markets mean very little to them.  On the flipside, traders/speculators are focused on making gains in stocks, bonds, and other assets in the short term in order to obtain returns.  The short term for this group might be hourly, the medium term might be daily, and the long term might be weekly.  With this particular group, they need to determine both the likely direction of the financial markets due to both market sentiment and valuation.

As you might imagine, the traders/speculators have to analyze emotions or the psychology of financial market participants.  Gauging market sentiment (general short term positioning of traders/speculators in stocks, bonds, and other assets in terms of their trend to buy or sell) is all about emotions.  Additionally, they must be able to combine that with proper valuations for stocks, bonds, and other assets.  Essentially they need to be correct twice.  On the other hand, investors are focused on the long term which corresponds to valuation.  Valuation over the long term is not driven by emotions.  There is a very famous saying by Ben Graham who taught one of the most well-known investors of all time, Warren Buffett.  Graham said, “In the short term the market is a voting machine, in the long term the market is a weighing machine.”  The takeaway from Graham’s quotation is that market sentiment (i.e. emotions) can drive the financial markets wildly over the short term.  However, after a period of years, financial markets always seem to follow the path back to what their true valuations are.  Since emotions are not part of that equation, individual investors should feel more comfortable ignoring or at least subduing their emotions whenever the financial markets exhibit high levels of volatility.

A related part of the story is the financial media (both TV and print) almost always provide information for traders/speculators.  To be perfectly honest, the financial media would not have much to talk about if long-term investing was the topic.  Essentially they would recommend analyzing one’s risk tolerance, define one’s financial goals, and then build a portfolio of financial assets to reach those goals over the long term.  Yes, true investing is very boring actually.  The financial media needs to have something more “exciting” to talk about in order to have viewers (readers) and the corresponding advertising dollars that come from that.  Therefore, the stories and article appearing in the financial media are geared toward traders/speculators.  Now if you are an investor, you can either ignore this bombardment of information or take it with the proverbial “grain of salt”.  Thus, you can keep your emotions in check when all the traders/speculators are wondering how to react to the market volatility right now each and every trading day or week.

For a more in depth discussion of managing one’s emotions as it relates to investors, you can refer to one of my older blog posts.  The link to that blog post is as follows:


  • 3)  The benefit of diversification can disappear or be reduced greatly whenever there are periods are elevated volatility.

The benefit of diversification is one of the hallmarks of the proper construction of an investment portfolio for individual investors.  The basic premise (which has been proven over very long periods of time) is that investing in different asset classes (e.g. stocks, bonds, real estate, precious metals, etc.) reduces the volatility in the value of an investment portfolio.  A closer look at diversification is necessary before relating the discussion back to the Brexit vote.  The benefit of diversification stems from correlations between asset classes.  What is correlation?  To keep things simple, a correlation of 1 means that two different assets are perfectly correlated.  So a correlation of 1 means that when one asset goes up, the other asset goes up too.  A correlation of -1 means that two assets are negatively correlated.  So a correlation of -1 means that when one asset goes up, the other asset goes down (exactly the opposite).  A correlation of 0 means that the two assets are not correlated at all.  So a correlation of 0 means that when one asset goes up, the other asset might go up, go down, or stay the same.  Having an investment portfolio that is properly diversified means that the investments in that portfolio have a combination of assets that have an array of correlations which dampens volatility.  Essentially the positively correlated assets can be balanced out by the negatively correlated assets over time which reduces the volatility of the balance in one’s brokerage statement or 401(k) plan.

What does all this correlation stuff have to do with the Brexit vote?  Surprisingly, it has quite a bit to do with the Brexit vote.  Note that this discussion also applies to any situation/event that causes the financial markets to exhibit high levels of volatility.  During extreme volatility like investors witnessed after the Brexit vote, the correlations of most asset classes started to increase to 1.  Unfortunately for individual investors, that meant that diversification broke down in the short term.  Most all domestic and international stock markets went down dramatically over the course of the two trading days following the Brexit vote.  Therefore, individuals who had their stock investments allocated to various different domestic and international stocks or value and growth stocks all lost money.  When correlations converge upon 1 during extreme market shocks, there is really nowhere to “hide” over the short term.  In fact, the only two asset classes that did very well during this period were gold and government bonds.

What is the key takeaway for individual investors?  Individual investors need to realize that there is an enormous benefit to having a diversified portfolio.  However, diversification is associated with investing over the long term and thereby harnessing its benefit.  There are times of market stress, like the Brexit vote and aftermath, where diversification will not be present or helpful.  When those times come around, individual investors need to keep emotions out of the picture and stick to their long-term financial plans and investment portfolios.

  • 4)  The surprise Brexit vote provides the perfect opportunity for individual investors to evaluate their risk tolerances for exposure to various risky assets.

The two trading days after the surprise vote by the UK to leave the EU (Brexit) were very volatile and very tough to keep emotionally calm.  Individual investors were faced with a very unusual situation, and the urge to sell many, if not all of their investments was very real.  That reaction is perfectly understandable.  Now for the bad news, there will be another time when volatility is as great as or larger than the volatility that the Brexit vote just caused.  In fact, there will be many such periods over the coming years and decades for individual investors.  In spite of that bad news, the Brexit vote should be looked at as a learning experience and opportunity.  Since individual investors know that there will be another period of elevated volatility, they can revisit their personal risk tolerances.

It is extremely difficult to try to determine or capture one’s risk tolerance for downturns in the financial markets in the abstract or through hypothetical situations.  You or with the assistance of your financial professional normally asks the question of whether or not you would likely sell all of your stocks if the market went down 10%, 15%, 20%, or more.  How does an individual investor answer that question?  What is the right answer?  There is no right or wrong answer to that type of question.  Each individual investor is unique and has his/her own risk tolerance for fluctuations in his/her investment portfolio.  A better way to answer the question is to convert those percentages to actual dollar amounts.  For example, if an individual investor starts with $100,000, would he/she be okay with the investment portfolio decreasing to $90,000, $85,000, or $80,000 over the short term.  Note that the aforementioned dollar amounts sync up with the 10%, 15%, and 20% declines illustrated previously.

The opportunity from the Brexit vote is that individual investors have concrete examples of the volatility experienced in their investment portfolios.  It is far easier to analyze and determine one’s risk tolerance by looking at actual periods of market stress.  Depending on your stock investments, the total two-day losses might have been anywhere between 5% to 10%.  Let’s use a 10% decline for purposes of relating this actual volatility to one’s risk tolerance.  If an individual investor was invested 100% in stocks prior to the Brexit vote, he/she would have lost 10% in this scenario.  Let’s use hypothetical dollar amounts:  if the starting investment portfolio was $100,000, the ending investment portfolio was $90,000.  Now the vast majority of individuals do not have all of their money invested in stocks.  So let’s modify the example above to an individual investor who has 50% in stocks and 50% in cash.  In that particular scenario, the individual investor has $50,000 invested in stocks and $50,000 invested in cash.  If stocks go down by 10%, this individual investor will have an ending investment portfolio of $95,000.  Why?  The individual investor only losses 10% on $50,000 which is $5,000 not the full $10,000 loss experienced by the individual investor with a hypothetical portfolio of 100% in stocks.

The importance of the illustrations above and its relation to the Brexit vote is that one can quickly calculate the actual losses from a market decline with a good degree of accuracy.  So let’s say that you had 60% of your money invested in stocks prior to the Brexit vote.  If the overall stock market declines by 10%, your stock investments will only decline by 6% (60% * 10%) assuming the other 40% of your investment portfolio remained unchanged.  So let’s put this all together now.  If you look back at the stock market volatility caused by the Brexit vote, you need to adjust the overall stock market decline by the percentage amount you have invested in stocks.  That adjusted percentage loss will be close to the decline in your overall investment portfolio.  Now whatever that adjusted percentage amount is, ask yourself if you are comfortable with that percentage loss over the short term.  Or is that way too risky?  If the adjusted percentage is way too risky for you and makes you uncomfortable, that is perfectly fine.  The important piece of knowledge to learn is that you need to work with your financial professional or reexamine your investment portfolio yourself to reduce your exposure to stocks such that the adjusted percentage loss is reasonable for you to withstand.  Why?  Because there will be another market volatility event on the order of magnitude of the Brexit aftermath or even worse.

Keep in mind that I am not making a financial market prediction over the short term.  The important point is that the history of financial markets has shown that periods of elevated market volatility (i.e. lots of fluctuations up and down) keep occurring over time.  The Brexit vote provides a real-life example to determine if your risk tolerance is actually lower than you first imagined.  The next cause of market volatility may be a known market event similar to how the UK vote to leave the EU was.  The harder things to deal with are market volatility stemming from the unknown and unforeseeable.  These market volatility events are called “black swans” which is the term coined by Nassim Taleb in his book by the same name several years back.  A “black swan” can be a positive event for the market or a negative event for the market.  As it relates to individual investors and risk tolerance, the negative “black swan” is applicable.  Now the term “black swan” is improperly used today by many investment professionals.  A “black swan” is an event that by definition is unknown and cannot be predicted.  When it does occur though, there is a period of extreme market volatility afterward.  Thus, you can adjust your risk tolerance to be better prepared for future events that will cause market volatility, either known events like the Brexit vote or unforeseen events.  The Brexit vote aftermath should be embraced by individual investors as a golden opportunity to ensure that they are properly (or more precisely) measuring their risk tolerances.

Summary of Important Lessons for Individual Investor from the Brexit Vote:

  1.  There are very few monumental financial market events that should cause individual investors to feel inclined to immediately change their investment portfolios. Plus, they can only truly be identified by hindsight;
  2. Investors should focus on valuation of financial assets (no emotions here), traders/speculators worry about market sentiment (emotions) and valuation (no emotions here);
  3. The benefit of diversification can disappear or be greatly reduced during periods of extreme market volatility and financial market stress over the short term;
  4. The surprise Brexit vote offers individual investors a valuable opportunity to see if their risk tolerances are aligned with the possibilities of short-term market declines.  This real-life event can be used to redefine one’s risk tolerance to better withstand similar periods of market volatility that will inevitably occur in the future.