How high-net-worth individuals are riding out the bear market, according to their financial planners

July 5, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC
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High-net-worth individuals aren't sweating the bear market.
Thomas Barwick

The past six months have been the stock market’s worst start to a year since 1970.

And even though the richest billionaires lost a collective $1.4 trillion in the past six months, in general high-net-worth individuals with at least $1 million in investable assets aren’t sweating it, their financial planners say. And there are lessons for more modest investors in how to best approach a bear market.

“Most of our clients, they’re just rolling with what is happening, and they’re making adjustments that I don’t view as significant,” says Tim Speiss, tax partner at EisnerAmper’s Personal Wealth Advisors Group. “No one is reacting as if we are in a crisis environment…They’re of the view—as are we—that this is all going to be transient.”

Here are some takeaways for all investors.

Keep following the plan

There’s no getting around it: The best time to prepare for a bear market is before it happens. Sophisticated investors do this by diversifying their assets—real estate, fixed income, equities, and cash all play a role—and keeping their investing timeline in mind. If they won’t need to draw down their assets for years or even decades, there’s no need for panic.

“There’s a lot of fear and negative sentiment out there, and those who are particularly savvy are thinking long-term, not really about the next six to 12 months,” says Paul Deer, certified financial planner at Personal Capital.

It’s also likely they’ve already rebalanced their asset allocation to have more cash on hand.

“Typically when people are euphoric or overly optimistic about what’s going on in the market—that’s when you want to take a little money off the table, and you want to create a slightly larger cash position,” says Florina Shutin, managing director and investment adviser at Wells Fargo. “You want the cash on the side when the dip happens. Because…it’s just harder to predict when it will happen and for how long.”

Reassess your positions

That said, bear markets can often, well, lay bare what needs to change in your portfolio. Perhaps you’re realizing that your asset allocation is more aggressive than you’re actually comfortable with, or that you’re missing exposure to an important segment.

On the flip side, you might find that coupled with decades-high inflation, now is a good time to explore putting more of your asset allocation into equities so that you can at least try to keep up with cost of living, says Deer.

He and Shutin also say it’s a good time to look into alternative investments, which can include hedge funds, private
markets, real estate, and digital assets like cryptocurrencies. In fact, a recent EY survey found 30% of high-net-worth individuals—and 81% of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, with over $30 million in assets—invest in alternatives.

These investments have typically been available only to investors with certain minimum investment requirements. But more and more financial companies are expanding options for the average investor as well, says Shutin. That doesn’t mean you should take wild swings, or make big investments in unpredictable assets like Dogecoin. But a little diversity can help.

“High-net-worth investors like shiny things as much as anyone else,” says David Waddell, CEO and chief investment strategist at Waddell and Associates. “They’re prone to make mistakes too, but they limit their exposure to speculative wagers. They’ll gamble, but they’ll do it with much less enthusiasm.”

Consider a Roth conversion

One strategy high-net-worth individuals consider during a down market is a Roth IRA conversion. That involves transferring all or part of the balance of an existing traditional IRA into a Roth.

This is a good time because the tax implications of selling now, when account balances have taken a dip, are lower than they might be in the future. And your gains grow tax-free from here on out.

Converting to a Roth IRA is a nuanced strategy—there’s no single right answer that applies to everyone. If you have a financial adviser, it’s a good conversation to have.

“The best way to think about it is: Are you in a lower tax bracket today than you would be in the future?” says Deer. “Your traditional IRA assets are at a lower value today than they were six months ago. You can ultimately translate that to the same growth but with lower tax consequence today.”

This is an especially attractive strategy for those who plan to pass on some of their assets to children or grandchildren. While traditional IRAs require minimum distributions starting at age 72, Roth IRAs do not.

“If you have legacy planning as part of your financial plan, you might put more emphasis on the conversion,” says Deer. “They could inherit a Roth IRA, and you could extend the duration of tax-free growth on those assets.”

Optimize tax-loss harvesting

Another tax strategy high-net-worth individuals may employ is tax-loss harvesting, says Shutin. That is when investors sell investments in the red, and use those losses to offset realized gains. That trims their overall capital gains tax bill.

“The easiest way to make money right now is to book those tax losses,” says Waddell.

For example, you might be able to sell off an S&P 500 index fund from one company, and buy a similar one from another, says Shutin.

“Pretty much any investment you’ve made in the last year is possibly down and has an unrealized loss,” she says. “So this is actually a fantastic time to reevaluate your portfolio and do a lot of tax harvesting.”

This strategy doesn’t make sense for everyone. You don’t want to miss out on potential gains, for example, just to get a tax break. It’s best to consult with a financial adviser before making this move.

Buy, buy, buy

Of course, investors might be happier when the market is on the upswing. But a bear market also represents an opportunity: to buy shares at a “discounted” rate that then compound in value.

High-net-worth individuals take advantage of the gloomy market sentiment, says Shutin. “When everyone is running, that’s when you should buy,” she says.

If you’re nervous, it’s best to think about where you’ll be at this time next year, says Waddell. Consider: Will COVID be advancing or declining by then? Will supply chains be more or less clogged? Will inflation be rising or falling?

“Usually when I’m super pessimistic or anxious that’s the time to buy, so you should buy today,” he says. “If we can zoom out and transport ourselves six months in the future, I’m not as agitated…It’s a little bit of a hold-your-nose environment. Turn your TVs off for six months, and I’ll see you at Christmas.”

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