This is a good time to study how financial planners deal with down markets when it comes to investing in stocks and mutual funds.
It’s the dilemma facing just about all who dare peek into their 401(k) statements or other investments these days: Should they sell a mutual fund or all their funds?
This is becoming an increasingly complex decision, even for the pros, who are starting to realize that current financial conditions aren’t modeling the experiences they’ve had for the last couple of decades.
“We’ve been talking people down from the ledge,” said financial planner Ross Levin, of Edina, Minn.
Individuals without guidance from a professional often fret even more. So a look at how financial planners make decisions might help:
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Individuals often pick mutual funds in their 401(k)s like throwing darts. One fund’s returns looks good so they choose it. With time, however, it changes with the ups and downs in the stock market, and winners start looking like losers.
Planners don’t look for the “best” fund or give up on funds just because they’ve lost money. They select a variety, which insulates people somewhat from the bad times.
At any particular time, the mixture can look like a mistake, but the planners have clients stick with it because every awful time in the market has eventually turned into a moneymaker.
For a middle-age person, it means retirement savings invested roughly like this:
• 30 percent in one or two funds that invest in large-company stocks.
• 10 percent in one or two funds that invest in smaller company stocks.
• 20 percent in one or two international stock funds.
• 40 percent in bonds or cash.
If you had that mix, you wouldn’t like what you see.
The average mutual fund that invests in large-company stocks lost 36 percent this year, as of a week ago. Those investing in small-company stocks lost 35 percent. And international funds declined 44 percent, according to Lipper, which tracks fund performance.
If you mixed stock and bond funds in a 60/40 combination, your loss might have been about 20 percent.
That might seem atrocious. But planners assume time cures all.
Although it might seem crazy to hold onto a large-company fund that has lost 36 percent this year, a financial planner would see such a fund as average.
The planner would unload a fund only if, for a couple of years, it continuously performed worse than the average. And they would be especially inclined to dump an expensive fund that lagged the average — a fund with an expense ratio of 1.4 percent or higher.
For clients who simply can’t handle the stress of staying with their investments, planners have people shave away some money rather than fleeing entirely from a fund.
For example, a person who might have 60 percent in stocks could move some money out of stocks to have 50 percent in stocks.
While some financial planners would say to take a little money out of large, small and international stock funds equally, Merrill Lynch strategist Richard Bernstein said he’d be inclined now to favor large-company funds and cut back on small caps and international — funds vulnerable in a recession.
An investor who pulled money from stocks could shift it temporarily into a money-market or stable-value fund.
Planners would prefer another option: Leave money already in the 401(k) in a variety of stock and bond funds, but put new money in a money-market fund.