Over the years, I've lost huge amounts of my retirement fund. I've been through the savings & loan fiasco, the tech stock bubble, the crash of 2008 and now this market. I can't afford to lose my money again, so I'm considering moving it all to cash. Do you think that's a good move? I'm scared to death. -- Cheryl P., Houston, Tex.
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I hear you. Looking back over the past twenty-five years you can easily get the impression that all we've done is lurch from one crisis to the next.
Add to that backdrop new worrisome twists like Standard & Poor's debt downgrade of the U.S. government and Fannie and Freddie Mac, the specter of a double-dip recession, the economic woes in Europe and Monday's more than 5% plunge in the Dow, and it's understandable why you'd want to ditch stock and bond funds and huddle in cash.
But that would be a mistake.
Now is not the time to give in to emotions and make rash moves. It's the time to take a few deep breaths and dispassionately set a sensible course for the future.
Let's start with a little perspective. Yes, the fact that U.S. debt no longer carries a top triple-A rating is troubling. But it's not as if S&P told investors something they didn't know before (i.e; that our country's long-term finances are a mess).
As for the economic effect the downgrade might have, that's far from clear. Ultimately, though, bond investors' expectations will determine the yields on Treasury bonds, not the opinion of a bunch of guys in ties over at S&P.
And, so far, investors seem to be rushing into Treasuries not away from them. So I think people may be overreacting to the whole downgrade thing.
That said, whether the sell-off was an overreaction to the downgrade, the growing sense that the economy may be weaker than previously thought or something else, investors have clearly shown they're skittish about stocks.
But this isn't exactly news either. Although we lose sight of it from time to time, the fact is that the stock market is and always has been a very volatile place.
The flip side of that volatility, though, is that stocks have also generated some pretty impressive long-term returns. If you look at the 56 rolling 30-year periods from 1926 through 2010 (1926-1955, 1927-1956, etc. through 1981-2010) the lowest annualized return stocks have delivered over a 30-year span is 8.5%, and the average 30-year annualized return for all those periods is 11.3%. For bonds, the numbers are 1.5% and 5.1%, respectively.
This doesn't mean stocks will generate the same gains over the next 30 years. I wouldn't be surprised to see them come in considerably lower.
But I don't see any reason why, over the long term, one would expect stocks to underperform bonds or cash, especially considering the current low yields on bonds and cash equivalents.
So it seems to me that the challenge for someone investing his nest egg today is still pretty much what it was before all the debt-ceiling-downgrade hoopla: to participate in stocks' long-term growth without getting hammered too badly when stocks suffer their inevitable periodic declines.
There are two ways you can try to do that. One is to attempt to outguess the market — that is, capitalize on stocks when they're doing well and then move out of them into bonds or cash or gold or whatever to avoid downturns.
The other is to invest in a reasonable mix of stocks and bonds and basically stick to it, allowing the bond portion of your portfolio to dampen stocks' swings. The first approach — moving in, out and around various parts of the market — is difficult-to-impossible to pull off consistently.
If you doubt that, just consider recent events. In the weeks leading up to August 2, investors' biggest fear was that Congress and the Obama administration might fail to raise the debt ceiling on time and thus spark a stock-market meltdown.
People were so convinced that this would threaten their portfolios that many considered moving their money into cash to protect against that possibility. When Congress and the White House reached a deal before the Tuesday deadline, the big market swoon everyone feared was averted.
However, two days later, while investors were still feeling good about dodging the debt-limit bullet, the Dow plummeted 510 points on concerns about the European debt crisis and the possibility of the U.S. sliding back into recession.
And then came Monday's wild 635-point Dow free fall in the wake of S&P's downgrades.
My point is that you can never really tell what might initiate a market decline — let alone know when it might occur.
The more sensible way to participate in stocks' long-term growth is to create a mix of stocks and bonds that gives you a shot at solid returns and offers at least some protection.
The longer away you are from retirement and the more your stomach can handle the value of your retirement savings taking the occasional hit, the more you can devote to stocks.
The closer you are to retirement and the more upset you get when your nest egg gets whacked, the more you should tilt toward bonds and cash. If you're on the verge of retirement, that mix might be somewhere around half in stocks and half in bonds.
Taking the asset allocation approach and sticking with it (except for periodic rebalancing) won't immunize you against losses. But it can help you manage the downside risk of stocks without giving up all the upside.
And, more importantly, it gives you a rational way of dealing with the stock market's volatility and keeping downturns to a magnitude you can handle, rather than engaging in a never-ending guessing game.
By trying out different blends and seeing what sort of losses they incurred, you can get a better feel for what stocks-bonds allocation might be right for you.
Remember, though, if you go with too conservative a strategy to guard against market downturns, you limit your upside. So to get a sense of whether the asset allocation you choose will give you a large enough nest egg to support you in retirement, I suggest you also run it through a calculator like Fidelity's Retirement Quick Check or T. Rowe Price's Retirement Income Calculator.
I don't want to downplay the seriousness of the situation facing investors today. We could very well see lots more turmoil in the financial markets and further declines in stock prices.
But the fact is that there will always be something going on that investors will feel compelled to react to, whether it's the threat of a recession triggering a market meltdown or, in better times, rosy reports of economic growth and corporate profits suggesting the markets will soar.
But if you invest on the basis of hunches and speculation rather than setting a coherent long-term strategy and sticking to it, you'll put yourself at risk of selling after prices have already fallen and buying back in when prices are already inflated.
In the end, that will make it tougher for you to earn the returns you'll need to build a decent nest egg and harder for you to maintain your emotional equilibrium in tumultuous times like these.