How to Make the Most of Your Investments—Even in Unexpected Economic Downturns
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If you've been monitoring your investment portfolio lately, you’ve likely had some anxiety.
With businesses and states shut down in varying degrees, unemployment in the double digits, and a stock market that swung from record highs in February to a 35% drop a month later, being an investor is as unpredictable as it’s ever been. This volatility and uncertainty can feel especially daunting if you’re planning to retire in the near future.
The good news: Even though a worldwide pandemic is certainly unprecedented, unpredictable economic times are not—and there is a roadmap to protecting your investments.
If the coronavirus has left you wondering what you should do with your investments, here’s how to take it step-by-step:
Knowing Your Risk Tolerance
Risk tolerance is the main foundation for how portfolios are evaluated. High risk tolerance allows for more growth (but may result in short term fluctuations in your net worth), whereas less risk tolerance means you’re more insulated from market factors—including downturns. Risk tolerance will form the basis of any well-balanced investment portfolio.
To evaluate your risk tolerance, the most important thing to consider is your timeline for when you’ll need the money you’ve invested. In general, an investment timeline greater than 10 years would be geared towards high-risk, high-growth opportunities (this is considered long enough to wait out any market downturns). Less than 10 years is when it’s recommended you start phasing in more stable assets—like government bonds and mature high-dividend-yield stocks. The other strategy is to save towards a specific target goal, and transition to a steady income based model once you’ve reached that goal.
However, during a recession (or in anticipation of one), investors often choose to reallocate their portfolios toward less risk, to try to mitigate losses. While some investors choose to double down on what they see as stocks selling on discount. (Warren Buffet famously advising to “be greedy when others are fearful.”)
How to Allocate Your Portfolio During a Recession
The first thing to consider: what exactly is in your ‘portfolio’?
For most individuals, this will be a 401(k), an IRA (either Roth or traditional), and maybe a secondary brokerage account. This traditionally is the sum of your “securities” and is considered a somewhat illiquid asset. Your investment portfolio is seen as a complement to your savings account and assets like your house, altogether constituting your total net worth.
It’s worth viewing both your portfolio and total net worth together, to decide how to strategize with different accounts. It’s also worth assessing your savings, as it’s recommended you have at least 6 months of living expenses in your account, not tied up in any investments or assets.
The next step is to consider how your total assets compare with your desired risk allocation. If you are looking to minimize risk during a recession, it’s recommended you reduce your holdings in stocks, and increase your holding in cash and cash instruments such as government bonds up to 70%.
The remainder of your portfolio is either stocks or cash. There is no right answer here and like most investment strategies, diversification will help lower your risk.
If you wish to invest in low risk stocks, it is generally recommended you find large cap, mature, high-dividend-paying stocks. These tend to be companies with household names like Walmart, Berkshire Hathaway, and IBM. A large cap company has a valuation of more than $10 billion, and a “mature” company is considered one whose business model is established, and yearly revenue growth is lower. A high-dividend is generally considered in the range of 3% to 10% and you’ll want to make sure the stock price hasn’t come down dramatically recently, as this will artificially inflate the dividend yield. Certain industries, such as garbage collection and electricity are viewed as essential in any economic time, and are called “defensive stocks” for this reason, as they hold their value better during recessions.
How to Safeguard Your 401(K)
If you’ve checked your 401(k) recently and saw a decline in value, the most important thing to do is not panic. You first need to consider first how your 401(k) fits into your larger net worth, and then examine if your assets are allocated in a manner that suits your timeline and goals. If your current allocation matches your risk threshold, there may not be much to do other than wait for the economy to return to normal.
If you are very short on cash, and still have a source of employment, you may consider reducing your contributions to your 401(k). However, this is not generally recommended as your 401(k) is both tax deferred, and is usually matched by employers to a certain percent.
Early withdrawal is also almost always not recommended as 401(k)s have special tax incentives which make early withdrawals (before age 59 ½) treated as taxable income, in addition to paying a 10% early withdrawal fee. This is essentially two taxes on one withdrawal.
However, if you, a spouse, or dependent has been diagnosed with COVID-19, you may be eligible under the CARES Act to have the 10% early withdrawal penalty waived for withdrawals up to $100,000 taken out of a 401(k), 403(b), or 457 retirement plan through 2020. You then have the option to pay the full federal income tax on the withdrawal, or repay the withdrawal amount over a 3-year period.
However, again it’s worth noting that due to the compounding effect of interest, a dollar taken out of a 401(k) today will likely result in more than a dollar lost in potential value upon retirement.
What Happens If You Need to Take a Loan Against Your 401(K)?
Another option is to take a loan against the value in your 401(k). You can typically take up to 50% of your savings, up to a maximum of $50,000 in the course of a year (the CARES Act has doubled this amount to $100,000).
Loans against your 401(k) have a number of benefits, primarily speed and cost as you don’t need to be “approved” to borrow your own money. Loans also have a 5-year repayment schedule with no prepayment penalty, which provides great flexibility for borrowers.
While you won’t owe any penalties or taxes, you will owe interest (based on the current prime rate). If you fail to pay off the interest, you’ll incur the 10% early withdrawal fee, compounding your losses. Furthermore if you lose your job early, you’ll need to repay your loan immediately (or suffer the 10% early withdrawal fee), which can be stressful during unsure employment times.
Keeping Track of Your Investments
During a recession, or any unexpected economic downturn, the stock market can be volatile. Ups and downs aren't uncommon as consumer sentiment—and particularly consumer fear—sway day-to-day trades. If you're investing for the long haul, most experts agree that you should largely hold the course and ignore any temporary dips in the market. After all, as Warren Buffett once said, "Someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago."
But that doesn't mean you should take your hands off the wheel entirely either. Keeping an eye on your investments can help you spot trends, see how your accounts are tracking against your goals, and help guide your future buys. And since you are investing for the long haul, keeping an eye on your investments can let you compare a current stock price to its original purchase price, so you know not to panic about what’s happening today.
Quicken Deluxe, Premier, and Home & Business users can access all of their investment accounts at a glance through the Investment dashboard. The newly updated dashboard allows you to set up all your investment accounts so you can quickly see all holdings, total value, and day change, all in one place with an easy to understand summary. The dashboard also tracks your top performers and lets you keep an eye on investments you're considering in the future.
Should I Switch My Investments During Coronavirus?
If you are not an active investor, and have a properly balanced risk portfolio relative to your target retirement date, there may not be a need to rebalance your portfolio right now.
If you have less than 10 years left before retirement, you may want to consider consulting a financial advisor about reallocating your portfolio.
Even without a global pandemic, it is always advisable to keep a diversified portfolio, and work with a financial advisor or wealth manager to decide what investment strategy is right for you.