Where do investors tend to put their money in a bear market?
A bear market is traditionally defined as a period of negative returns in the broader market to the magnitude of between 15-20%, or more. During this type of market, most stocks see their share prices fall, often substantially. There are several strategies investors employ when they believe that this market is about to occur or is occurring, and they typically depend on the investor's risk tolerance, investment time horizon and objectives.
One of the most conservative strategies, and the most extreme, is to sell all investments before the downturn begins or before it hits its lowest point, and either hold cash or invest the proceeds into much more stable financial instruments, such as short-term government bonds. By doing this, an investor can attempt to reduce his or her exposure to the stock market and minimize the effects of a bear market.
But this strategy requires knowing when to sell, and bear markets can be very difficult to predict. As Ryan Miyamoto, a CFP® in Pasadena, CA, explains, “Selling at a loss is your biggest threat. A bear market will test your emotions and patience… The best strategy to control your emotions is to have a game plan. Start by creating a safety net that is not invested in the market. Seeing your accounts go down will be a lot easier if you know you have adequate cash on hand.”
Paul R. Ruedi, a CFP® financial advisor in Champaign, IL, suggest investors regularly do “lifeboat drills” before a bear market starts. He says investors should “...imagine a bear market has occurred and the stock portion of their portfolio is down 20% or 30%. How will they feel? How are they going to react? Are they going to panic, or remind themselves that “this too shall pass,” and stay the course with their investments? We remind our clients to do these all the time, and when a bear market occurs, they are spared the panic and emotions that consume most investors during bear markets.”
For investors looking to maintain some positions in the stock market, a defensive strategy is usually taken. This type of strategy involves investing in larger companies with strong balance sheets and a long operational history, which are considered to be defensive stocks. The reason for this is that these larger, more stable companies tend to be less affected by an overall downturn in the economy or stock market, making their share prices less susceptible to a larger fall. With strong financial positions, including large cash holdings to meet ongoing operational expenses, these companies are more likely to survive downturns. These also include companies that service the needs of businesses and consumers, such as food businesses (people still eat when the economy is in a downturn) and companies that sell basic consumer goods (people still need to buy toothpaste and toilet paper). In this same vein, it is the riskier companies, such as small growth companies, that are typically avoided because they are less likely to have the financial security that is required to survive downturns.
As Benjamin Westerman, CPA/PFS, CFP® in St. Louis, MO explains, many investors look to bond holdings and cash during a market downturn. “Bonds are your “sleep at night” money that is protected during a bear market, while you wait for your investment portfolio to recover. In addition, if you have any money on the sidelines or are still in the accumulation/savings phase of your life, this is a great opportunity to invest in equities while stocks are on sale.”
As investors will find, there is a wide range of other tactics that can be tailored to a bear market. The most important thing is to understand that a bear market is very difficult to predict, and to remember that most strategies can only limit the amount of downside exposure, not eliminate it entirely.