Does the fear of another financial crisis keep you awake at 3 a.m.? Are you terrified about what could happen to your retirement portfolio if the national or global economy experiences a huge downturn like the one we lived through in 2008–09?
If so, it’s time to take a closer look at your holdings. You need to find out if your portfolio is structured to weather a major stock market decline. If it’s not, a few changes can put you in a better position to get through a recession without having to dramatically change your retirement plans. (For more, see Managing Your Retirement Portfolio in 2016.)
Taking a Major Hit
Market pullbacks and corrections are regular occurrences, and market crashes, while not common, are something everyone who invests for and through retirement will experience, says certified financial planner Gary Silverman, founder of Personal Money Planning, a registered investment advisor providing financial planning and investment management services in Wichita Falls, Texas. But the people whose retirement plans were derailed by the financial crisis were never really ready, he says: “To say they were ready would be like saying someone who drives across country without buckling their seatbelt is safe, as long as they don’t get into an accident.”
Suppose your portfolio consists of 60% stocks and 40% bonds and has a total value of $1 million. That means you own $600,000 worth of stocks and $400,000 worth of bonds. If the stock market takes a 20% hit, your $600,000 stock portfolio will be worth $480,000. If it takes a 30% hit, your stocks will be worth $420,000, and if it takes a 40% hit, your stocks will be worth $360,000.
Eric Meermann, a certified financial planner and portfolio manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group’s Scarsdale, N.Y., office, recommends considering how much of a drawdown you could tolerate without abandoning your long-term strategy in the event of a downturn. “Selling when things have already gone down is the worst strategy, and investors often fall prey to their emotions in times like that,” he said. Having a plan can help you stay rational.
Paper losses are only a problem if you are forced to sell stocks when they’re down because you have no other way to pay your bills. If you have enough countercyclical assets to ride out a bear market until it recovers, you’ll be OK.
“Individuals who are in retirement or near retirement should not have a stock allocation in their portfolio that is so large it would cause a 20% to 40% loss to their total portfolio in a crisis,” says Andrew Marshall, an independent financial planner in San Diego. One way to cushion the impact of stock market shocks is with a significant allocation to Treasury bonds, perhaps by investing in the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT), which is up a total of 120% in the past 10 years including 33% in 2008, advises Marshall.
Meir Mandell, a financial services professional with New York Life in Brooklyn, N.Y., says that high-grade bonds, government debt and fixed-income annuities are some assets that will usually perform in a down economy. He suggests following the 100 minus your age rule, which says that, for example, if you’re 61, you should allocate only 39% of your portfolio to equities.
Meerman says that to be well diversified, your portfolio should not only have a mix of stocks and bonds but also a mix within the stocks themselves. He recommends mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to achieve broad diversification at low cost and prefers this strategy over holding individual stocks. He also says you should focus on holding different types of stocks, such as U.S. large capitalization stocks, U.S. small company stocks and international company stocks.
Further, adds Meerman, in times of crisis it can help to have assets that are not highly correlated with the stock market, such as energy and real estate. Because these assets tend to perform better in times of high inflation, you should permanently allocate a small part of your stock portfolio to them.
The Bottom Line
“Investing leading up to and through retirement must take into consideration that lousy markets happen,” warns Silverman. “Corrections happen. Crashes happen. Decade-long periods of time happen with no return on your stock investments. Bonds can lose money across multiple years. Cash can return less in a year than what taxes and inflation rob from you in the same amount of time. That is normal, and anyone even casually looking at a chart of market returns can see it.”
If your plan only works as long as nothing goes seriously wrong with the market, you aren’t properly prepared for retirement. (For more, see Delaying Retirement? Here’s How to Tweak Your Plans.)