Is it time to ‘buy the bear market’?

In the investment world, people talk all the time about “buying the dips.”

No one says, “Buy the bear market.”

Nothing we are experiencing right now feels like a “dip.” The stock market peaked at the very beginning of the year, on Jan. 3, and has receded into bear-market territory since then, dropping more than 20%.

That’s less like a “dip” and more like a “dive” or a “plunge.”

“Buying the plunge” sounds dangerous, downright hazardous to your wealth.

But “taking the plunge” and investing when the market has discounted stock prices by 20% sounds like savvy shopping.

There’s a strong case to be made right now that investors should be ready to swoop in and gather up their bargains. It may feel counterintuitive, but it falls under the Warren Buffett adage of being “greedy when others are fearful.”

Yet it is going to take a strong constitution for investors to overcome their fears and start buying now.

I spoke recently with my friend Marilyn, who had amassed a fair amount of cash because she couldn’t decide what to do with it in current conditions; she was waiting for a time when it is “more comfortable to invest.”

That means she wanted to follow the pack of average investors who always appear in studies about investment performance, who get the worst of the downturns and miss out on much of the upswings. They own securities with good track records, but they don’t get the benefit of those results because they were buying high and selling low.

I would never make a statement like “This is the time to buy,” because it’s not my job or expertise. I’ll leave that to the financial experts I talk with.

But I will say that right now is a time for investors to be checking their risk tolerance and saying “If not now, when” on putting money to work in the market, and then answering that question so that they are ready whenever that time comes .

Jeffrey Bierman, chief market technician for TheoTrade and founder of, said on my “Money Life with Chuck Jaffe” podcast recently that he believes “much of the dirty work is behind us,” which means investors should be looking at being more adventurous.

“We are in a bear market right now and psychologically we’re wounded, but if you can get beyond the psychology,” Bierman said, “my God, some of the valuations on these stocks haven’t been this cheap in 20 years. ”

He’s talking about single-digit price/earnings ratios on brand-name, blue chip stocks, the kind of thing that would feel like a no-brainer, if only he wasn’t also feeling like the stock market has an additional 10% or more to fall before the bottom is in.

“This is where millionaires are made, in these kinds of markets,” Bierman said.

Likewise, Darrell Cronk, chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management, sees a recession coming in the later part of this year and a struggling stock market with it, but also sees the sun peeking out from behind the storm clouds.

“Your emotions should not be the predominant driver of your portfolio decisions,” Cronk said in an interview on my show. “Most people know that, and they intellectually understand that but, candidly, they do a very poor job of managing to that.

“You could have a generational type buying opportunity, particularly in risk assets, if we get a large enough correction,” Cronk added, noting that the average peak-to-trough declines on the S&P 500 is roughly 35% during a bear market, and the benchmark is nearly two-thirds of the way to that now.

Cronk isn’t ready to “pound the table that [it’s] a great time for investors to allocate capital” just yet, but he notes that investors don’t have to wait for perfection, and that it’s almost time for them to start nibbling.

Let’s go back to my friend Marilyn with cash to invest, who is waiting for more pleasant and enjoyable conditions before putting the money to work.

If she’s not comfortable now, an additional 10 or 15% decline in the market won’t make her feel cozy and serene.

Nope, she will wait for the bottom to get in, for the market to recoup some of the decline and will miss out on much of the turnaround that many market experts see happening once recessionary conditions ease.

It’s understandable, but it will lead to disappointing results.

To get around that, here are some things she should consider:

“What are you waiting for?”

Be as specific here as possible, like Cronk and Bierman both saying they could be adding to holdings now, but they will become more aggressive if the S&P 500 reaches the 3,500 level, and anything between 3,200 and 3,000 will be a big buying signal.

If your response to the stock market is different than your response in the supermarket — where every little sale is tempting — ask yourself why you are passing up relative bargains to wait for prices to go up. Stock up when prices are low.

“What is your time horizon?”

You don’t invest money for the short term at a point when the next six to 12 months could get ugly.

But don’t let the next six months stop you from investing if you believe the next six years — or 16 years — could be great, especially if you have that much time fore you will need to access the money.

If your short-term needs are addressed and covered, it becomes much easier to do the right things with your long-term money.

“How can I balance the opportunities and fears?”

If you’re nervous about current conditions but see the potential benefits of buying now, consider splitting up your purchases.

You don’t have to jump in with both feet, especially when small steps may be sufficient. Start nibbling now, while holding back some assets to invest down the line.

Dollar-cost averaging works particularly well in conditions like this; let it work for you, even when it’s scary to keep investing.

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