Where should I put my money now if I believe the stock market is going to crash?—Jerry, Virginia
If you really believe the market is headed for an imminent crash, there are all sorts of places you could invest your money. You could move it all into cash, you could buy gold or real estate or for that matter you could even take an aggressive approach and try to capitalize on stocks’ carnage by loading up on investments designed to rise when the market falls, such as bear market funds or put options.
But do I think you should actually do any of these things? No. And the reason is that there’s a big difference between believing and knowing.
I can understand why someone would conclude from the market’s recent setbacks and crazy whiplash volatility that all this turmoil is a prelude to a major meltdown. And for all I or anyone else knows, that may be the case.
Or it may not be. Think about it. Doomsayers have pointed to any number of reasons in recent years why they believed the market was headed for a downturn: Standard & Poor’s downgrading of U.S. Treasury debt in 2011; the growth-slowdown scare in China that sent stock prices down 12% in the summer of 2015; Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, both of which were supposed to be catalysts for a market rout. But none of these warnings panned out.
Obviously, some prediction of the market’s downfall is going to turn out to be right. The market will go into a major slump again at some point. After all, since 1929 we’ve suffered through 20 bear markets where stock prices have fallen 20% or more, and even before the current turbulence, we’ve endured 26 corrections of at least 10% but less than 20%. But it’s impossible to know in advance whether heightened volatility or even a decline that appears to gathering momentum will turn out to be The Next Big One.
If you doubt that, go back to the last major slump, the near 60% decline in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index from early October, 2007 to early March, 2009. It’s easy to see with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that it would have been smart to get out of the market the first week of October. But that was hardly obvious in real time. In fact, after dropping by almost 20% from October to early March 2008, stocks rallied for a 12% gain into the middle of May. We know now that this was just a brief respite from what would turn out to be a gut-wrenching bear market. But for all investors knew at the time, that 12% rebound could have signaled the end of the selloff and a resumption of the market’s advance.
Even after the turnaround began in March 2009, it’s not as if investors knew the bear had run its course. The S&P dropped by more than 15% in 2010 and by almost 20% in 2011. We know now that these setbacks were temporary speed bumps (albeit scary ones) within a new bull market. But investors back then didn’t have the advantage of being able to consult a stock chart, as we can today, that showed them how it all played out.
So while we may believe we know where stocks are headed, we don’t. The same goes for market pros. They can speculate, prognosticate, prevaricate — and sometimes even provide valuable insights into what’s driving the market — but they don’t really know what the financial markets are going to do in the near term.
Which is why I don’t think it makes sense to shift your money around in an attempt to outguess the markets, whether that means going to cash to avoid a setback with the intention of getting back in when the market’s ready to rebound or moving to an investment you think will thrive while the market dives.
That doesn’t mean you should sit back and do nothing. But rather than flailing about and making moves you may later regret, I recommend instead that you do the following three things:
First, take a look at where you now stand, by which I mean make sure you really know how your money is currently invested. The single most important thing you want to confirm is your asset allocation, or the percentage of your holdings that are invested in stocks vs. bonds. That will determine how your portfolio holds up if the market takes a major dive.
If you haven’t been periodically rebalancing your portfolio, you may be invested more aggressively than you think. Someone who started out with a mix of 70% stocks and 30% bonds when this bull market began back in 2009 and simply re-invested all gains in whatever investment generated them, would have something close to a portfolio 90% stocks and 10% bonds today.
So take this time to go over your holdings and tally up how much you have in stocks and how much in bonds. If you’re not sure of the asset make-up in some of your investments — which may be the case if you own funds that invest in a combination of stocks and bonds — plug the names or ticker symbols of your funds into Morningstar’s Instant X-Ray tool, and you’ll see how your portfolio overall is divvied up between stocks, bonds and cash.
Second, figure out where your asset allocation should be. Ideally, you want a blend of stocks and bonds that will generate high enough returns so you can reach your financial goals but at the same time isn’t so risky that you’ll sell stocks in a panic during a major stock rout.
Admittedly, getting to the right mix can be tricky. The percentage of stocks you’re perfectly comfortable with when the market is going gangbusters may leave you frightened and anxious when stock prices plummet. One way to arrive at a portfolio mix that jibes with your risk tolerance and financial needs is to go to a tool like Vanguard’s risk tolerance-asset allocation questionnaire. The tool suggests a percentage of stocks and bonds that should make sense for you. It will also show you how various mixes of stocks and bonds have fared over the long term and in up and down markets.
But you should also crunch a few numbers and then do a little soul searching. Estimate how Vanguard’s suggested mix would have performed during the late 2007-through-early 2009 slump, when stock prices declined nearly 60% in value and investment-grade bonds gained about 7%. If you think you would cave and begin selling in the face of such a loss, you might want to dial back your target stock position a bit.
Think back too about how you handled past downturns or, for that matter, how you reacted when stocks began to dip and dive. You may not be able to nail it exactly, but you want to come as close as you can to a blend of stocks and bonds that you’ll be okay holding in a variety of market conditions, and then make whatever adjustments are necessary to get you to that mix.
Finally, once you feel you’ve got a portfolio that will provide sufficient gains during rising markets and enough protection during routs so you’ll be able to hang on until the eventual recovery, stick with that mix, except for occasional rebalancing, regardless of what’s going on in the market. The idea is to make sure your portfolio doesn’t become too aggressive during market upswings or too conservative when stocks take a hit.
Refraining from tinkering with your portfolio, or even making dramatic changes such as fleeing to cash or switching to different investments altogether, may be challenging at times. That can especially be the case when the market appears to be going haywire and every news story and TV financial show you see seems to suggest that the market is on the verge of Armageddon.
But it’s during those times when you need to guard against overriding the rational process you went through to build your portfolio. If you want to re-evaluate the portfolio mix you arrived at earlier just to confirm that it’s right for you and even possibly make a small tweak or two, fine. But you don’t want to let fear and emotions dictate your investing strategy and lead you to make impulsive decisions you may rue later.
Just to be clear: Following these steps will not protect you from short-term losses. Rather, the idea is that by creating a mix of stocks and bonds that will limit the downside to something you can tolerate, you’ll be able to ride out a market slump and be positioned to capitalize on the eventual recovery.
Can I guarantee this approach will lead to the best results over the long-term? Of course not. But at least you’ll be following a disciplined rational strategy rather than engaging in a never-ending guessing game of trying to decide when to get out of the market (and where to put your money once you do) and then trying to figure out when to get back in. That’s a game you can’t consistently win.