Identifying the approach to your wealth can help you navigate through volatile times

Financial markets can offer a great opportunity to grow wealth, but volatility can make investors uneasy, ushering in feelings of fear, or even excitement about potential opportunities. Reacting to market movements may sometimes seem like the right thing to do for the short term—but what are the long-term consequences?

Timing the market is extremely difficult. Consider, for example, that we were in a bull market at the end of 2019. Then, by mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in earnest. Suddenly, markets started to experience great volatility. In fact, the average daily move for the S&P 500 was +/- 5%, even higher than at the height of the stock market crash of 1929. During this period, U.S. stocks recorded their worst one-day drop in over 30 years, falling -12% on March 16. In the same month, the market also experienced some of its best days in history, rising +9.3% on March 13, and +9.4% on March 24.

Many market participants have been tempted to jump in and out of investments during the coronavirus crisis. But historical evidence shows that markets right themselves even after major disruptions and that, in the long term, staying invested is a tried-and-true strategy for growing wealth over time.

Let’s assume you invested $10,000 in the S&P 500 on October 9, 2007—the day the stock market peaked before the Global Financial Crisis. Had you stayed fully invested from then until the middle of April 2020 and reinvested dividends, your average annual total return would have been 7% and your investment would be worth around $23,400. Not bad! But say you got nervous and sold during bouts of volatility, causing you to miss out on the 10 best days over that period—in that case, your average annual total return would have been +0.6%, and your investment would be worth only $10,720. Six of those 10 best days occurred within just 10 days of the 10 worst days, evidencing just how difficult it can be to time the market.

Research suggests that making decisions based on short-term market movements actually diminishes returns. DALBAR’s annual Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior shows the S&P 500’s 20-year annualized return was 6.06%, while the average equity mutual fund investor saw only a 4.25% return on the same basis. That nearly 2% difference is often attributed to investors’ reacting to the markets.1 Indeed, there is ample evidence from the field of behavioral finance finding people tend to react to markets in a way that lowers returns.2 Many investors tend to “buy high” and “sell low,” which can cause them to “churn and burn” their portfolios.

When emotions interfere

The graphic shows how human emotions affect our investing decisions—begin at a neutral state, head up to an exuberance (when we buy), down to anxiety (when we sell) and continue through the same cycle again.

So how can we avoid decisions that might lead to poor outcomes, and instead position ourselves for success? Reframing financial decision making is a crucial starting point. Rather than reactively focusing on elements that are out of our control—markets, economies, policymakers and the like—we can instead proactively focus on elements that we can control.

There are a number of factors within your control, but perhaps the most critical component in every wealth strategy is this: explicitly identifying the primary purpose, or intent, for your money. In other words, what job do you want your money to do for you? When your decision-making process serves the primary intent for your wealth, you have a guidepost to understand what actions to take, given market (or other) events.

Imagine young entrepreneurs in their early 30s with no children. The couple wants to provide for their lifestyle after they sell their business. They have many working years ahead of them and no intention of using their investments for decades. For them, market volatility may be largely irrelevant. Why? They are more able to wait out ups and downs, ultimately taking advantage of potential investment returns over multiple decades.

Now imagine the same couple, but they are currently in their 60s. They have three adult children and no source of income outside of their investment portfolio. They not only need to sustain their spending, but also would like to provide for family members. In addition to revisiting their portfolio risk level, they may want to consider factors that go far beyond investment decision making.

For example, how long do they want the money they give to their family to last—within the children’s lifetimes or well beyond? Given these goals, what would be the most tax-efficient way to give to their family? Would they have enough to maintain their lifestyle, given their needs and desired level of giving? These considerations may necessitate a dialogue with professionals about wealth structuring, investing, borrowing, income and estate tax considerations—and more. Identifying a primary intent moves a focus on investments to the broader purpose of wealth, which can help you align your overall wealth strategy and decision making with the individual’s or family’s goals.

To have your money work toward your goals, it helps to identify with one of four “foundational intents” for wealth.

Of the four foundational Intents for wealth, which fits you best?

The graphic shows the four foundational intents for wealth—Spend, Divide, Preserve and Grow.

Intent helps steer the path of family wealth

The graphic shows how the four foundational intents for wealth evolve during and beyond a wealth creator’s lifetime.

SPEND: To support your lifestyle goals with the assumption that all wealth will be spent in your lifetime.

Spending all of your wealth during your lifetime can be by choice (e.g., “I’d like to bounce my last check”), or by necessity (e.g., “I feel that I may not have enough during my lifetime based on my current spending”).

People attracted to this approach are often interested in generating income to achieve a certain lifestyle, or educating children and/or grandchildren.

Many people believe this intent is the easiest to manage. However, there are many risks in attempting to achieve a zero balance sheet at the end of life; it’s easy to over- or underspend. Just think: Would you be comfortable using equity in your home now if you unexpectedly lived to 100?

These continuous risks make stress-testing and contingency planning essential.

DIVIDE: Identify a set amount of money either to create a minimum wealth level or to leave to beneficiaries.

Many people who focus on division are interested in “keeping it simple” with respect to the path their wealth will take at the end of life. Why? Some feel they want beneficiaries to have complete control over the money they receive, or it feels like too much effort to create a “trust and estate plan.” Others are reluctant to discuss their wealth or aren’t ready to commit to gifting to the future recipients. The key focal point is that the wealth goes to the intended place, and that the plan is reviewed on an annual basis—especially later in life when preservation can become more appealing. For example, when gifts become larger than anticipated, there may be a greater focus on sustaining the wealth for third and fourth generations. Also, it can be more apparent whether family members are psychologically ready to productively receive wealth and what governance may or may not be needed.

PRESERVE: To create a strategy and family culture that enable wealth to last through multiple generations. 

The desire to preserve wealth across generations can be enormously complex. To support an estate plan that preserves your assets, it is essential to consider your family culture and dynamics.

Promoting a positive family culture to foster the stewardship of wealth may require answering challenging questions such as: When are trust distributions so large they risk stifling the beneficiary’s growth and development? The answer lies beyond just dollar amounts. It also depends on communicating with beneficiaries about financial values, accountability and governance.

The key to successfully preserving wealth often depends on how well you align a wealth strategy and structure with your family culture. It can be very helpful to have the ongoing advice and support of financial professionals familiar with successfully transferring wealth across generations.

GROW: To create a strategy and family culture that enable wealth to grow in perpetuity (often via a family business or pooled family investments). 

Perhaps the most complex of the four intents, a growth intent requires multigenerational succession plans, as well as business and wealth strategies that are truly owned and governed collaboratively by family members. Even the best laid-out approach can end in very public and painful family disputes, making predefined exit strategies essential.

A key starting point can be to identify whether your family has the human infrastructure (i.e., family members who also have a desire to grow) to support this path for your wealth.

Establishing a primary intent—whether it be Spend, Divide, Preserve or Grow—can empower you to reframe financial decision making. It can motivate you and your family to collaborate, and help your financial team work with you to answer such critical questions as:

Do I have just enough, more than enough or not enough to achieve my primary intent?

Establishing the resources available—now and in the future—to serve your or your family’s intent is critical. If there is not enough, working to adjust the necessary levels of cash flow can help get you back on track. If there is just enough, continual monitoring of the situation may be essential. If there is more than enough, perhaps you may want to explore additional goals or opportunities.

Who should be involved in the financial decision making, and when?

Establishing a group of decision makers and a culture that can support your desired intent is also important. For example, if family members don’t know they will be receiving large amounts of wealth, they may not have the information or tools to successfully steward the money or a family business across multiple generations. Working with professionals to communicate the right amount of information at the right time can help you or your family achieve the desired outcomes.

Your J.P. Morgan team can help you identify your goals-based approach to wealth: building a strategy that supports your goals and addresses your concerns. With regular check-ins, we can help keep you on track and aligned with your strategy. Remember to consult your legal, tax and other specialists for further guidance on how certain strategies should be applied to your situation.

All examples are shown for illustrative purposes only, and are hypothetical. Any name referenced is fictional, and may not be representative of other individual experiences. Information is not a guarantee of success or future results.

For Informational/Educational Purposes Only: The author’s views may differ from other employees and departments of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Views and strategies described may not be appropriate for everyone, and are not intended as specific advice/recommendation for any individual. You should carefully consider your needs and objectives before making any decisions, and consult the appropriate professional(s). Outlooks and past performance are not guarantees of future results. Please read Important Information section.