What do you do when price goes down?

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When you buy a new car and drive it off the lot, the price others would pay for it goes down that instant. In fact, on average, the market price of a new car declines 20% in the first year. How do you react to that?

Did you make a mistake in buying? Did you think about that price drop ahead of time? Would you feel better or worse if you had daily, monthly, quarterly or annual price quotes on  your purchase?

These questions are not idle chatter, because any investment you make will decline in market price at some point in time. If you respond rationally to that decline, you’ll get very satisfactory results over time. If you don’t, you’ll be your own worst enemy.

Every investment rises and falls in price over time. Go ahead and accept that right now. Cash fluctuates with inflation and deflation; bonds fluctuate with interest rates; commodities fluctuate with supply and demand; stocks fluctuate with all the above and more. It’s a fact of life.

If you expect fluctuations to occur, you can react prudently to market price–benefiting from volatility. If you hope your investments will only go up in price, you’ll panic and sell at the wrong time. That will lead to lousy results.

Acknowledge it right now: whatever you buy will fall in price at some point in time. You should be prepared, specifically, to see any stock you buy both drop by half and double over time. How can you possibly sleep at night or react prudently to such an acknowledgement? By clearly understanding the difference between market price and underlying value.

As Warren Buffett put it, price is what you pay and value is what you get. Let me modify that statement a little: market price is the amount you’d pay or receive if you had to buy or sell RIGHT NOW! If you don’t have to buy or sell right now, market price should not be your main focus.

Market price is the intersection of the price a seller is willing to sell and the price a buyer is willing to buy. If the seller is panicking, they are likely to take a lower price. If the seller is euphoric, they’re likely to want a higher price. When sellers and buyers agree to make a transaction, that’s market price.

But, what if particular buyers and sellers aren’t knowledgeable or rational. What if they are panicking like they did in early 2009, or overly euphoric about technology stocks like they were in early 2000? In those cases, market price may not be a very good indication of underlying value.

Market price tends to depend on who is doing the selling and buying at any point in time. If the people you are selling to or buying from are sober-minded, intelligent, knowledgeable, then market price and value are likely very similar. If not, then not.

Underlying value is the value to someone sober-minded, intelligent, knowledgeable. Think about someone who has been in an industry for 30 years, who knows and understands suppliers and buyers, who grasps the full context of where the industry has been and is going, who knows growth rates, input prices, distributors, shipping costs, financing rates, the competition, etc.

When that expert looks at a business, they don’t think about market price, they think about dividends, returns on investment, cash needs, industry dynamics, and they think about it over the long term. When an expert comes up with what a business is worth, that assessment is based all the relevant information available at the time, and will much more accurately reflect the long range value of the business. Unlike Wall Street analysts and most investors, an expert isn’t thinking about market price in 6 months or 6 seconds, they are thinking about customers, buildings, factories, raw materials, long term contracts.

To successfully invest, you need to focus on underlying value instead of market price. Market price then becomes your servant instead of your master. If buyers and sellers are scared, you may want to buy from them. If they are euphoric, you may want to sell to them. At all other times, you look at their price quotes like a disinterested shopper. You aren’t forced to buy or sell and aren’t swayed by the crowd’s frequent price quotes and dramatically shifting opinions.

This is the key to successful investing. If you need to buy and sell right away, market price is your guide, and you’re likely get a poor deal. If you don’t need to buy and sell, then you should feel free to focus on underlying value first and market price second.

In this way, you benefit from swings in the market. If you focus on what the expert does: long term cash flows, industry dynamics, underlying asset values, etc., you can easily take or leave market prices. Then you can buy assets cheap and sell them expensive, and you’ll get very nice returns.

But, if you focus primarily on market prices, you’ll panic when price drops and sell at the bottom, or become euphoric as prices climb and buy at the top. That’s what most people do in the stock market, and that’s why they get lousy results.

Next time the price of something you own drops, ask yourself if you are focused on market price or underlying value. If the truth is that you don’t know anything about the underlying value of what you own, you shouldn’t be investing your own money. If you are focused on underlying value, ask yourself if you would be panicking if you owned the whole business. It is, after all, a portion of the business that you own. 

Yes, the future may not look as good as the past. Yes, competitors or the economic cycle may be making things difficult, but did the value of your buildings, factories, inventory, cash and future cash flows really drop by 30% just because reported earnings missed Wall Street’s forecast by 5%? 

If no, then it’s probably time to buy more of the business. If yes, then take a week or month to think about and review all the relevant data, and wait until your emotions have simmered down. In the cold light of full analysis, you may decide the business isn’t as bad off as others think. Or, you may decide it really is doomed and you should sell. Wait until you’re sober-minded to do so.

Make market price your servant, not your master. Focus on underlying value. Your net worth will reflect this choice over time.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

What do you do when price goes down?