Ask Carrie: Carrie Schwab Pomerantz - The Personal Side of Money

Portfolio Blues: Advice Through the Ages

May 20, 2009

Dear Carrie:

I’m 28 and I lost 36% of my 401(k). I have it in 45% stocks. What should I do—watch my money disappear or do I move it around?

—A Reader

I’m 58 this year and hesitant to invest in equities even though I know the conventional wisdom is to buy when the market’s down. What’s your advice?

A Reader

I’m 77 years old and still working. I currently have $480,000 invested and the value seems to be dropping daily. What should I do to protect the total?

—A Reader

Dear Readers:

There’s no doubt that the past several months have been a strain on everyone’s portfolio—and their investing confidence. Across the board, people of all ages and from all walks of life have watched the value of their investments go down. They’re looking for some way to ensure that they won’t lose more. At the same time, a lot of folks are just sitting on the sidelines, paralyzed by indecision.

So my first bit of general advice to everyone, regardless of age, is to stay involved. You all indicate that you’re saving and have money to invest. Don’t stop now. Keep doing the right things—saving, investing and taking advantage of any 401(k) match. Then, step back and think about changes you might want to make. 

General guidelines everyone should follow—all the time
First some general guidelines for all investors...

Honestly evaluate your feelings about risk—The current market climate provides a great opportunity to take your risk temperature. When times are good, it’s easy to be more aggressive. But how do you feel now? Review your mix of stocks, bonds and cash. If you don’t have the stomach for dramatic market swings, or you’re investing for short-term goals (less than five years), it might be appropriate to gradually reduce your exposure to the stock market.

Measure your portfolio against the right benchmarks—The reality is that most portfolios have gone down. But so have the markets in general. So to get a meaningful sense of how you’ve done, you need to look at your relative performance. For example, take a look at benchmarks like the S&P 500 stock index, which fell 38 percent in the twelve months between May 15 ’08 and ’09, or the NASDAQ, which went down about 37 percent in the same time period. If you’ve done worse, pay attention. But if you’ve done better, perhaps things are not as dire as they seem. Note: Be sure to use the appropriate benchmarks to get an accurate reading.

You don’t have to go it alone—Now more than ever may be the time to seek out professional help. Many employers provide access to investment advice as part of their overall benefits package, and increasing numbers of brokerage firms offer complimentary consultations. If you’re unsure of what to do, by all means reach out to someone you can trust.

Now some thoughts more specific to individual life stages... 

Twenty-eight and watching money “disappear”: Time is your greatest asset.
As a young investor your age is a huge advantage—especially for your retirement savings. Even though the stock market has swooned, I still believe in its long-term potential. So if you’re not going to use your savings for decades, you should have plenty of time to ride out the current storm—and to benefit when the markets turn around. And although you have to consider how much risk you’re willing to take, in general, a 45 percent exposure to stocks is actually fairly conservative for someone in their twenties. .

Fifty-eight and worried: There’s still time for growth.
I certainly understand a hesitance to invest in stocks, but in your fifties you still have time to realize some growth. And while no one can say if we’ve hit bottom, there are glimmers of hope that the economy is starting to recover. Also look at the alternatives. Cash may feel safe short-term, but long-term returns on money markets and Treasuries tend to be negative after inflation. That said, you should always keep enough cash to cover at least three to six months expenses in interest-bearing FDIC-insured accounts. That way you won’t be forced to sell an investment at the wrong time.

Seventy-seven and still working: Be realistic about your time frame.
At this point in life, protecting your savings is a high priority. My first concern would be that you have enough cash on hand to cover your expenses for at least a year, ideally three to five years. If you own stocks, that doesn’t mean you should sell everything now and realize a loss, but it does mean making a gradual shift to investments like bonds and FDIC-insured CDs. If you’re still saving or contributing to a 401(k), consider putting new money into these more conservative investments.

Good luck to you all.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The type of securities and investment strategies mentioned may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review a security transaction and investment strategy for his or her own particular situation. Data contained here is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.


The information on this website is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager.


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