“Markets don’t go up for eight or nine years steady without meaningful corrections,” says Jim Bruyette, managing director of Sullivan Bruyette Speros & Blayney in McLean, Va. “Now is not the time to be taking excess risk.”
But advisers say that despite the dismal outlook, very few people should be making drastic changes to their portfolio right now.
While it might stress some people to see their retirement accounts shrink, the only people who should be worried about how market volatility might hurt their bottom lines are those who expect to need the money soon, says Jeff Porter, a financial planner who works with Bruyette. Cash that will be needed within five years or so should be kept in more conservative investments such as cash and bonds, Porter says.
This includes people who might need the money for a down payment for a home or to pay the college tuition for a child who is going to school in the next couple of years. It’s especially true for people who are in the early years of retirement or who expect to retire within the next five years, Porter says.
That’s because those savers could end up facing losses right when they begin to draw down on their savings, Porter says. That would force them to sell stocks while they are falling, he says, which would essentially lead them to lock in their losses.
People who are in retirement or will be retiring within the next few years can minimize their losses by making sure they have enough money in cash and short-term bonds to cover at least eight years of expenses, Porter says. That way if stocks fall further, those investors won’t feel pressured to sell from their equity portfolio just to find the money they need to cover the bills, he says. Instead, they can leave their savings invested in the market, where the money would have more time to recover.
If it turns out that stocks continue to go up, those investors who are in or near retirement or otherwise plan to start drawing down on their savings can re-balance their portfolios about once a year, he says, selling stocks that have gone up in value to add to their pool of cash and bonds.
Ideally, these gut checks will happen before a major market downturn, not after, says Jim Holtzman, a wealth adviser and shareholder with Legend Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, investors may sell in a panic when the markets become volatile.
For instance, people who sold stocks in August, the last time worries of a slowdown in China rocked global stock markets, would have missed out on the recovery stocks showed in the following months, Holtzman said. (Even more so, people who sold stocks after the last major crash in 2008 would have missed out on the six years of market gains that followed.)
To avoid timing markets, investors should reevaluate their exposure to stocks versus bonds regularly, say at least once a year, Holtzman says. People can also reassess after a major life change, such as marriage or the birth of a child, if their exposure to stocks, bonds and other asset classes still matches their goals, he says.
Those investors who realize they might need the cash soon to cover near-term expenses can consider moving to more conservative allocations, he says. Same for people who generally realize they are invested much more heavily in stocks than they intended to based on their risk tolerance and when they’ll need the money. (Say, someone who has 80 percent of their savings in stocks when they really want 50 percent of their savings in stocks, he says.)
Most other investors, however, are probably better off staying put, Holtzman says.