What is Panic Selling & How Does it Work?

Panic selling is when enough investors want to sell their holdings at the same time that it creates a profound drop in prices. That drop scares other investors into selling, which causes prices to fall still further, which frightens more investors, and so on.

The resulting panic can erase vast amounts of wealth. It can take weeks or even years for the markets to recover from a serious panic.

markets can crash.

Throughout the history of every kind of market, panic occasionally sets in. Sometimes it’s a major global event that sets it off, like what happened with the stock markets in March of 2020 as the global COVID-19 pandemic picked up speed and countries entered lockdown.

Other times, it’s simply a matter of a given asset—like housing in 2008—being bid up to unrealistic levels, followed by the mass consensus of what it’s worth changing seemingly overnight.

What Causes Panic Selling?

While panic is a very human response to the prospect of major financial loss, there are also other factors that can trigger investors to start panic-selling stocks.

Panic Selling and Margin Calls

In the Great Crash of 1929, there were many investors who had borrowed heavily to invest in the stock market. When the markets dropped, they received something called a margin call, requiring that they pay back the loans they took out to invest. Those margin calls required that they sell potentially even more stock to pay back the loans, which caused the markets to fall even further.

Panic Selling and Stop-loss Orders

Similarly, there are trading programs that can throw fuel on the fire of a bout of panic selling. These can be as simple as a stop-loss order, a standing order to buy or sell a particular security if it ever reaches a predetermined price, which investors commonly use in their brokerage accounts.

A stop-loss order can be a way to take advantage of price dips to buy a stock at a discount. But during a sudden drop in the markets, stop-loss orders often lead to automatic sales of stocks, as investors try to lock in their gains.
These automatic sales—in large enough numbers, can accelerate the decline in a market, and contribute to the panic.

Panic Selling and Algorithms

There are algorithms employed by major financial institutions and professional investors that will automatically sell if the price of a given stock falls to a certain level. The crash of 1987 was caused in part by some of the first computerized trading programs. And in 2010, one trader who lost control of his highly sophisticated trading software was responsible for the “flash crash,” which caused roughly a trillion dollars of market capitalization to disappear in under an hour.

The system-wide risk presented by these tools is one reason that most major stock exchanges have installed a series trading curbs and “circuit breakers” in place to slow down panic selling and give the traders who use these programs to recalibrate them before a full-fledged selling spree can run out of control.

The Risks of Panic Selling

When markets drop suddenly, it can be scary for investors. And one of the biggest risks may be to give into that fear, and join in the selling.

But one thing to remember is that markets go up and down, but an investor only loses money when they sell their holdings. By pulling their money out of the stock market, an investor not only accepts a lower price, but also removes the chance of participating in any rebound.

Loss is a big risk of panic selling. People who invest for goals that are years or decades away can likely weather a panic. But if a person is investing for retirement, a sudden panic just before they retire can create a major problem, especially if they were planning to live off those investments.

The danger of sudden, panic-driven drops in the market is one reason it makes sense for investors to review their holdings on a regular basis, and adjust their holdings away from riskier assets like stocks, toward steadier assets like bonds, as they get nearer to retirement.

That risk is also why most professionals recommend people keep 6-12 months of expenses in cash, in case of an emergency. That way, even if a financial crisis causes a person to lose their job, they can stay in the market. It’s a way to protect their long-term plans from being jeopardized by everyday expenses.

Finding Opportunities in Panic Selling

During a panic, there are typically enough scared people making irrational decisions to create valuable buying opportunities. The stock-market crashes in 1987 and in 2008, for instance, were each followed by a decade in which the S&P 500 rewarded investors with double-digit annual returns. (As always, however, past performance is no guarantee of future success.)

The problem is that there’s no way to know when a panic has reached its end, and when the market has fallen to its bottom. Professional traders with complex mathematical models have had mixed results figuring out when a market will rebound. But for most investors—even savvy ones—it’s a guessing game at best.

There are two ways an investor can try to take advantage of a bout of panic selling:

1. The first is not to panic.
2. The other is to keep investing when the market is down, while stocks are selling for much lower prices.

Dollar Cost Averaging

One way to take advantage of panic selling is with dollar cost averaging. With this long-term plan, an investor buys a fixed dollar amount of an investment on a regular basis—say, every month. It allows an investor to take advantage of lower purchase prices and limits the amount they invest at when valuations are higher. As such, it’s a strategy for all seasons—not just during a panic. Most investors already employ some form of dollar cost averaging in their 401(k) plan.

The Takeaway

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