As major stock indexes hit all-time highs, it's worth looking back 20 years to a far gloomier time, when investors were cruelly and suddenly reminded that the value of their investments can depend on something as unpredictable as a mood swing.
Every once in a while, fear, snowballing into panic, sweeps financial markets—the stock market crash of October, 1987, now celebrating its 20th birthday, is a prime example.
In the five trading sessions from Oct. 13 to Oct. 19, 1987, the Dow Jones industrial average lost a third of its value and about $1 trillion of U.S. stock market value was wiped out. The losses culminated in a panic-stricken 22.6% decline in the Dow on Black Monday, Oct. 19. The traumatic drop raised recession fears and had some preparing for another Great Depression.
Stock market crashes were nothing new in 1987, but previous financial crises—in 1929, for example—often reflected fundamental problems in the U.S. economy.
The market's nervous breakdown in 1987 is much harder to explain. Especially in light of what came next: After a couple months of gyrations, the markets started bouncing back. The broad Standard & Poor's 500-stock index ended 1987 with a modest 2.59% gain. And in less than two years, stocks had returned to their pre-crash, summer of 1987 heights.
More importantly for most Americans, the U.S. economy kept humming along. Corporate profits barely flinched.
To this day, no one really knows for sure why the markets chose Oct. 19 to crash. Finance Professor Paolo Pasquariello of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business says the mystery behind 1987 prompted scholars to come up with new ways of studying financial crises. Instead of just focusing on economic fundamentals, they put more attention on the "market microstructure," the ways people trade and the process by which the market forms asset prices.
True, in hindsight there are plenty of adequate reasons for the '87 crash. Stocks had soared through much of 1987, hitting perhaps unsustainable levels: In historical terms, stock prices were way ahead of corporate profits. New trading technology and unproven investing strategies put strain on the market. There were worries about the economic impact of tensions in the Persian Gulf and bills being considered in Congress.
Out of Sorts
But for whatever reason, the mood on Wall Street shifted suddenly, and everyone tried to sell stocks at once. "Something just clicked," says Chris Lamoureux, finance professor at the University of Arizona. "It would be like a whole crowded theater trying to get out of one exit door."
It's a fairly common phenomenon on financial markets. Every stock transaction needs a buyer or a seller. When news or a mood shift causes a shortage of either buyers or sellers in the market, stock prices can surge or plunge quickly. Most of the time, balance is quickly restored. Lower prices draw in new buyers looking for a bargain, for example.
Sometimes, as in 1987 and many other true crises, things get out of hand. What happens at these moments is a mystery that may be best explained by dynamics deep within human nature.
Usually, explains behavioral finance expert Hersh Shefrin, a professor at Santa Clara University, investors believe they understand the world. In a crisis, "something dramatically different happens and we lose our confidence," Shefrin says. "Panic is basically a loss of self-control. Fear takes over."
Buyers and Sellers
Why don't smart investors, seeing others panic and sell stocks, step in to buy them up at a bargain?
First, it's very hard, in the midst of a crisis, to tell whether markets are acting rationally or irrationally. Buyers refused to enter credit markets this summer on fears about risky mortgage debt. It will take months, maybe years, to add up the full impact of losses on subprime loans.
It's also tough to think rationally yourself. "It's hard to keep your emotions in check when your money is on the line," Shefrin says.
And, even if you're confident the panicked market is giving you a buying opportunity, you're likely to want to wait until it hits bottom. If a market is in free fall, buying stocks on the way down is likely to give you instant losses.
Not only will buyers hold back. A falling market will bring many more sellers out of the woodwork. Leverage is one reason: Many investors buy stocks on borrowed money, so they can't afford to lose as much without facing bankruptcy.
This is one explanation for the temporary, sharp drops in many financial markets in the summer of 2007. Losses on leveraged mortgage debt prompted many hedge funds to dump all sorts of assets to raise cash.
Therapy for a Panicked Market
The solution to a panicked market, many say, is slowing down the herd of frightened investors all running in the same direction. New stock market rules instituted since 1987 pause trading after big losses. For example, U.S. securities markets institute trading halts when stock losses reach 10% in any trading session. "If you give people enough time, maybe they will figure out nothing fundamental is going on," University of Michigan's Pasquariello says.
There's another form of therapy for overly emotional markets: information. In 1929 and during other early financial crises, there were no computer systems, economic data were scarce, and corporate financial reporting was suspect. "The only thing people knew in the 1920s was there was a panic and everybody was selling," says Reena Aggarwal, finance professor at Georgetown University. "There was far less information available." In 1987, and even more today, investors had places to get more solid data on the market and the economy, giving them more courage not to follow the herd. That's one reason markets found it so easy to shrug off the effects of 1987, Aggarwal adds.
You can slow markets down, reform trading rules, and tap into extra information, but financial panics may never go away. It seems to be part of our collective human nature to occasionally reassess a situation, panic, and then all act at once.
Many see the markets as a precarious balance between fear and greed. Or, alternatively, irrational exuberance and unwarranted pessimism. "All you need is a shift in mass that's just big enough to push you toward the tipping point," Shefrin says.
In for the Long Haul
What should an individual investor do in the event of a financial crisis? If you're really sure that something fundamental has changed and the economy is heading toward recession or even another depression, it's probably in your interest to sell. But most experts advise waiting and doing nothing. "In volatile times, it is very likely that you [will be] the goat that other people are taking advantage of," University of Arizona's Lamoureux says. "It's often a very dangerous time to be trading."
Shefrin adds: "The chances of you doing the right thing are low." Don't think short-term, he says, and remind yourself of the long-term averages. For example, in any given year, stock markets have a two in three chance of moving higher. Other than that, it's nearly impossible to predict the future.
So, another financial panic may be inevitable. But relax: There's probably nothing you can do about it anyway. Anything you do might make your situation worse. So the best advice may be to send flowers to your stressed-out stockbroker, stick with your long-term investment strategy, and sit back and watch the market's roller-coaster ride.