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So you just checked your 401(k). Here’s how experts say you should navigate the nightmare

October 8, 2022, 3:02 PM UTC
How to protect your 401(k) in trying times.
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Ok, so you just checked your 401(k) and it doesn’t look good. Actually, it looks pretty terrible. 

But don’t worry, you’re not alone. 

With the bond market experiencing one of its worst years in history and the S&P 500 falling over 24% since January, most U.S. investors are feeling the pain.

And as predictions of an impending recession—or “something worse”—continue to flood in from Wall Street, even the most seasoned investors are battening down the hatches.

With this in mind, Fortune reached out to a few top wealth managers for some tips on how to best navigate these treacherous markets and preserve the value of your 401(k). Here’s what they had to say.

‘Keep calm and invest on’  

The first mistake most people make when they see big losses in their retirement accounts is rushing to sell.

Everyone has heard the old adage, “buy low, sell high,” but in practice, it can be easier said than done.

“While financial advisors everywhere preach about ‘buying low and selling high,’ investor emotions will tempt opposite behavior,” Kimberly Nelson, an advisor at the wealth management firm Coastal Bridge Advisors, told Fortune. “The urge to do something to stem the carnage in your retirement account during a market pullback, recession, or full-on bear market can be hard to ignore.” 

Nelson believes that investors should avoid offloading their 401(k) holdings at this point because stocks are already down over 24% this year, and timing market entries and exits can be a challenge.

“Usually taking action after the market has fallen does very little to protect your nest egg,” Nelson said. “Coming out of the market means that you have to be right about the exit point and right again about your re-entry point—market timing is almost always a fool’s errand and not the right strategy to build long-term wealth.”

The chartered financial analyst, who has worked as a financial advisor for over two decades, had a simple tip for people who are worried about their 401(k)s: “Keep calm and invest on!”

“[K]eeping the right perspective and taking the right kinds of action can help ease investor emotions on this rough ride,” she said. “Don’t worry about the day-to-day fluctuation of your portfolio—keep your long-term goals in mind and understand that time and time again, the market has proven its ability to rise from the ashes (and beyond) over time.”

Nelson argued that investors, and particularly younger investors, should focus on finding quality stocks at reasonable prices as the market falls, instead of selling to try and prevent further losses.

“I believe that buying today is a better time than eight months ago, and if you are a long-term investor, buying quality names at today’s prices and continuing to add to your portfolio each month could set you on the path to a very successful future,” she said.

Cameron Starr, a wealth advisor at Gratus Capital, echoed Nelson’s comments.

“We believe it is important to resist reacting to the markets by selling and going to cash,” Starr told Fortune.

He believes that the stock and bond markets will eventually recover from their down year, which means most long-term investors will never realize the current losses on their 401(k) holdings unless they sell now. 

On top of that, he noted that those who do sell stocks to hold cash aren’t just getting hit because of a down market—they’re also losing around 8% of their money to inflation, and 401(k) losses can’t be used to offset taxes.

The IRS will also assess a 10% penalty on any money withdrawn from a 401(k) account before the age of 59.5, which can end up being quite expensive.

“While it is stressful to see assets decrease, you have the ‘forced’ luxury of time and potential recovery for these assets. Allow your portfolio to have time to potentially recover, and if you have the ability to continue to invest with any excess cash, do so,” Starr recommended.

Advice for retirees

For those closing in on retirement, sinking stock and bond markets can be particularly devastating. 

Gratus Capital’s Starr said that it makes sense to reevaluate your risk tolerance when approaching retirement, arguing it may be wise for older Americans to invest more conservatively.

He recommended looking at target date funds that automatically reduce portfolio risk as retirement approaches. For someone planning to retire in 2045, for example, a target date fund would invest in a higher-risk portfolio that offers more opportunity for long-term gains early on. Then, as the years go on, the portfolio would automatically re-adjust to a less risky allocation. 

But for retirees who are worried that the market will continue to fall, and are looking to protect their savings now, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management shared some advice this week. 

“Consider using bond market volatility to lock in solid short-duration yields as we wait out the stock market’s roller coaster,” Chief Investment Officer Lisa Shalett wrote in a Monday research note.

The yields on one-year U.S. treasury bonds climbed to over 4% on Wednesday. That’s more than 10 times higher than they were in January. Investors can protect some of their retirement savings from inflation and losses in the stock market using short-duration bonds like these, Shalett said.

Positioning for a choppy market

While wealth management experts believe you should almost never pull money out of a 401(k), and most recommend against decreasing your contributions even if the market is having a down year, many investors are still deciding that enough is enough.

A new Morgan Stanley survey found that 31% of Americans are planning to reduce contributions to their 401(k) plans this year. 

If you’re in this camp and have a little extra money to invest this year after reducing your 401(k) contribution, UBS Global Wealth Management’s chief investment officer, Mark Haefele, broke down a few tips to help you make the most of choppy markets in a Wednesday research note.

First, he recommended increasing exposure to value stocks—or equities that trade at lower prices based on fundamentals like revenue, earnings, or net income than their peers.

“The combination of higher inflation and rising interest rates tends to favor an allocation to value stocks versus growth stocks,” Haefele wrote.

According to UBS’ research, value stocks have outperformed growth stocks by more than 4 percentage points in the 12 months following the Federal Reserve’s final interest rate hike in previous business cycles. And with inflation showing signs of peaking, many experts believe the Fed could pause its rate hikes later this year or early next year, setting up value stocks for a strong rally.

Secondly, Haefele recommended investors look to energy stocks for short-term gains as he sees oil prices topping $110 per barrel by the end of the year which should support a “further rally” in these names.

The CIO went on to say that investors might also consider adding “defensive exposure” from consumer staples stocks and “safe haven” currencies like the Swiss Franc.

And finally, he argued that “uncorrelated hedge fund strategies” will likely outperform the broader market moving forward, and said that investors can use funds that combine multiple hedge funds, like the HFRI Macro fund, to gain exposure to the industry.

“A high inflation and rising rate environment has led to stocks and bonds moving together, with both being down year-to-date. But this difficult environment for ‘traditional’ diversification has favored hedge funds, specifically macro funds, which are able to take positions across markets, instruments, and asset classes in order to navigate shifts in the macro environment and heightened uncertainty,” Haefele wrote.

Avoid obsessively checking your account balance

It can be hard not to look at your 401(k) when your account balance seems to shrink every day,  but the experts argue checking your balance too frequently can lead to bad decision-making.

“In my opinion, there is no value in looking at your account on a daily basis,” Coastal Bridge Advisors’ Nelson told Fortune. “I don’t even think you should watch it even on a weekly or monthly basis. Long-term assets should be reviewed once a quarter at most. Watching your 401K decline each day the market swings lower can make you more susceptible to emotional decisions you are trying to avoid.” 

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