When stocks tank, retirees confront urge to flee


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October 2018 was a dispiriting month for American investors.

Rising interest rates and threats of a trade war with China increased market volatility, leaving the Nasdaq in its worst month since November 2008 and nearly 400 S&P 500 stocks in the red.

This instability can be especially unsettling for retirees. When your direct income relies at least partially on the performance of equity investments, you may feel the temptation to pull your money out of stocks and divert to safer accounts.

But you should think twice before taking the leap.

Financial experts and behavioral scientists agree that fear of the markets can be our own worst enemy and that staying invested during a downturn is not only acceptable, it’s crucial for growth. If you’re a retiree or nearing retirement and worried about your risk, here are some reasons why you should sit on a well-diversified portfolio and some alternative actions you can take to combat your fear.

Remember your long-term strategy

When you established your portfolio, it was with the expectation of regular market volatility, both on the upside and the downside. Through diversified allocations and regular readjustments, a well-designed portfolio is made to weather volatility.

This is an especially important reminder for recent retirees who are working to shift their mindset away from a singular focus on performance to a maintenance and spending cycle.

Doug Oosterhart, CFP, founder of Life Point Planning, advises his clients to mentally separate their different accounts from the start to abate fear when stocks take a downturn. “If their equity portfolio goes down, we can just say we planned for this and we still have a few years of income in cash and bonds we can live off of while the market corrects either way,” he says. “It gives us time to make up for any losses that occur.”

Look to past corrections for reassurance. “If someone has stayed in the market for any 15-year period since the existence of the market, they’ve had a positive return,” Oosterhart says. A study by Barclays found that over the past 40 years, 10-year market returns have shown growth 96 percent of the time.

Patience is key. Even as a retiree, you’re looking at 20 years or more of future market changes, so don’t endanger your long-term goals based on short-term fears.

How to avoid emotional investing

One of the worst things you can do for your financial outlook is intervene in the process and act irrationally based on fear.

If the market continues to grow over time in the long run, Oosterhart reasons, how do individuals ever see negative returns? Aside from unbalanced holdings that take undue risk, human interference is often to blame.

When you pull out while prices fall, you lose the potential gains awaiting at the other end of the cycle. Moving your assets entirely to cash or bonds will only ensure you’ll fall behind rising inflation rates and miss out on any potential market growth.

Your plan was developed to sustain you throughout retirement, which means keeping a portion of your assets in equities and continuing to assume the risk. Though easier said than done, tuning out your fear is essential in focusing on your long-term goals.

Evaluate and minimize your risk

You should be aware of your own limits, though.

According to Oosterhart, reevaluating your risk aversion should be a priority once you reach retirement age. Again, you don’t want to convert solely to cash, but as a retiree, your investing strategy should be less about performance and more about mitigating risk.

You should have fewer assets in equities than you did 20 years ago, but you shouldn’t eliminate them completely, especially during a downturn. Rather than hold onto cash-like assets that are guaranteed to lose purchasing power due to inflation, take the 4-5 percent returns Barclays asserts you’ll see on average over time with a well-designed, moderate-risk portfolio.

Oosterhart advises a combined strategy of simplification and sophistication. “The highest form of sophistication is simplification,” he says, so maintain diversification of accounts, but narrow them to a simplified portfolio at a risk level you’re comfortable with undertaking.

Think about your beneficiaries

For those seasoned retirees who aren’t spending or traveling as freely and instead diverting much of their earnings to healthcare costs, estate planning is essential to investment strategy.

Your investments aren’t only going to serve you in the future, which is why keeping up with inflation is still an important consideration. “Unless you bounce your last check, something goes to someone,” Oosterhart says. “How do you want to position that from an estate planning perspective?”

Even if stocks are volatile today, your beneficiaries will likely see the growth when the market picks back up over time.

It all comes down to balance. Even in retirement, it’s important to evaluate your allocations regularly.

For Oosterhart, maintaining the agility to make adjustments as needed is a crucial aspect of financial planning for retirees. As market volatility increases, flexibility and diligence can make all the difference in a successful retirement plan.