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Stock Market drops – lessons from history

While the causes have been different, we've seen markets move like this before. We take a look at what's happened in the past.

Important notes

This article isn’t personal advice. If you’re not sure whether an investment is right for you please seek advice. If you choose to invest the value of your investment will rise and fall, so you could get back less than you put in.

This article is more than 6 months old

It was correct at the time of publishing. Our views and any references to tax, investment and pension rules may have changed since then.

The coronavirus outbreak and an oil price crash sent markets tumbling in March. We saw some of the biggest daily falls in history.

To put these falls into context we’ve gone back in time and had a closer look at some of the biggest market drops. We’ve looked at some of the causes, effects and how long the market took to recover.

The key point in all of this is that after each drop, the market recovered.

Unfortunately, market drops don’t come with a guide and this article isn’t one either. Past performance doesn’t tell us what will happen in the future, but there are always things we can learn from history to make us better investors today.

This article is not personal advice, so if you're not sure if an investment is right for you, please ask for advice. All investments fall as well as rise in value, so you could get back less than you invest.

Investing for the long term – we really mean it

Market drops can be worrying. Seeing the value of investments fall isn’t nice and blaring headlines don’t help.

But at times like these it’s good to go back to basics – we’re investing for the long term. That’s not a few months, a year or even five. It’s longer.

While market drops aren’t fun, they don’t last forever. You can see from the chart below that despite dips along the way, over the long term the UK stock market has risen.

UK stock market returns

Past performance isn’t a guide to the future. Source: Thomson Reuters Eikon 19/05/20.

Previous market drops and come backs

This chart looks at some of the biggest falls in value of the UK stock market since 1985 and how long it took to recover. For these examples we assumed you’d invested at the highest point before the market started to fall.

Value of UK stock market following drops

Past performance isn’t a guide to the future. Source: Thomson Reuters Eikon 13/03/20.

Black Monday 1987

19 October 1987 holds a place in the record books for being one of the biggest market drops ever. The US S&P 500 saw its biggest ever one day drop in value of 20.4% and the UK market fell by around 10% on the day – before falling further in the following days.

Leading up to the crash in 1987 the UK market alone had risen 47% in just over 10 months. In the UK it felt like the time to invest.

However, with hindsight many see the 1987 crash as a ‘perfect storm’, where euphoric markets were met by a few different shocks and panic selling ensued.

This is often the case for stock market busts. Yes, there were specific triggers, there always are. In this case a change in US tax legislation that hurt big acquisitive businesses and a whole host of complex, and often automated trading strategies, played a role.

But this bust followed an excessive boom – if it wasn’t the tax change something else would probably have spelt the end.

As the chart shows, if you’d invested in the run up to the crash your returns wouldn’t have looked pretty for a few years, but over the long term you would’ve more than made your money back.

Lesson from 1987:

Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful

Warren Buffett

Dotcom bust

While 1987 was a time of market euphoria, the dotcom bubble was made of something stronger – mania.

Tech, e-commerce and telecoms companies were going to change the world and people were willing to pay anything to be part of it.

The US tech focussed NASDAQ soared 86% in 1999 and average valuations reached 170 times earnings in November that year. At one point Yahoo was worth more than General Motors and Ford put together – people were willing to pay 1,000 times the next year’s earnings.

Revolutionary ideas and promises of future earnings growth were plenty. But actual profits or ways to make them were often lacking. Promise alone doesn’t make a solid foundation for investments and many learned this the hard way.

Ultimately there were some good ideas in the mix – Amazon was one of them. But at the time the winning company or technology wasn’t clear – everyone was going to win. When thinking about which companies or technologies to invest in, we think it’s best to wait until the winner is clear.

Lesson from the dotcom bust: invest in profit not prophets

Great Financial Crisis

Whether it was savers queuing round the block to get their money from Northern Rock or bankers pouring out of offices with their stuff in boxes – the financial crisis had a very human impact.

Fundamentally the 2008 financial crisis was a crisis in confidence. Concerns that started in the US mortgage market spread to the entire financial system. Fears mounted and lending dried up. Unfortunately for some, borrowing was essential and defaults followed.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers, a large Wall Street investment bank, on 15 September 2008 became the iconic moment of the crisis. The initial market reaction wasn’t huge, but as the scale of the problem was recognised many more banks looked like they could face the same fate. The market dropped further – by March 2009 it was nearly half of its pre-crisis value.

Government responses came, banks were bailed out, interest rates cut – anything to stop the financial system grinding to a halt altogether. They were successful to some extent, but not before a financial crisis became an economic one too. Companies struggled, people lost their jobs and economies slumped.

There’s no denying this was a big one, but there is a happier ending.

It wasn’t a straight climb back up, but businesses, economies and markets did recover. After three years, an investment in the UK market was back in positive territory.

Lesson from great financial crisis: stay calm, stay diversified, and stay invested if you are happy to accept the risks.

Brexit referendum

June 2016 took the world by surprise. Polls and bookies were adamant the UK would vote to remain but on the day 51.9% of us voted leave.

Also taken by surprise, the UK stock market fell 4% the next day and was down 7% the following Monday.

While the drop will have reflected some investors’ fears that Britain wouldn’t be better off alone. There was also selling pressure from some bigger investors – making right some big bets they’d made for a ‘remain’ vote.

Either way the market drop was one of feeling more than facts related to businesses or the UK economy at the time. Despite the headlines, it wasn’t long before a recovery took hold.

Lesson from Brexit: don’t make decisions based on headlines

Practical tips for uncertain markets

Market drops come in all shapes and sizes and that makes them tricky to predict.

The current market environment is no different and with any recovery closely linked to controlling coronavirus, it’s likely to be bumpy for a while. We think it’s best to focus on the things you can control.

Make sure you’re happy with your portfolio and the split between different types of investments and cash. With recent events, the amount you hold in shares (or funds investing in shares) is likely to have fallen.

If it’s lower than you’d like you could consider topping up your investments in shares – funds can be a great way to invest in a wide range of companies.

You could even use money from your other investment types, like bonds. And you don’t have to do it all at once. Shifting bit by bit could be a good approach as it lets you adjust to changes in the market as they come.

You could also consider adding to investments on a regular basis to help you make the most of more challenging times. It can be a lower risk strategy, and investing regularly could help you benefit from lower prices. Drip feeding in to a volatile market could mean the average price you pay for your investments ends up being lower than a single lump sum investment.

Whatever you decide to do, a long-term investment horizon is essential.

Find out more about how to build an investment portfolio

Building a portfolio that’s right for you can be tricky. Our advisers can check you’re on the right lines, or look after all the decisions for you.

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    Important notes

    This article isn’t personal advice. If you’re not sure whether an investment is right for you please seek advice. If you choose to invest the value of your investment will rise and fall, so you could get back less than you put in.

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