The coronavirus has reached a handful of countries across the globe, including the U.S. — and now, it’s touched retirement plans too.
Concerns about the spread of the disease and a global financial slowdown are driving deep dips in the stock market. Retirement portfolios are not immune to market volatility, worrying some savers that they may lose valuable assets they’ve been stashing away.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -1.66% and the S&P 500 SPX, -1.63% both dropped more than 6% over Monday and Tuesday, in part due to fear of the coronavirus spreading around the world. The S&P 500 suffered the biggest two-day loss since 2015 this week. Naturally, some retirement portfolio balances are waning as well, requiring advisers and financial firms to talk through these issues with their clients.
As always, many financial advisers are telling investors to remain calm. Market volatility is normal and expected, especially for long-term goals like retirement.
Investing can be emotional — after all, people are putting their life’s savings in an account to generate enough income for them to live comfortably in their old age when they can no longer work — but financial advisers say that even though the uncertainty can seem frightening, most retirement savers should not act on any market volatility at this time.
“For people who have a financial plan that tells them how they should be invested, deviating remains the single most destructive action to their wealth,” said Chris Chen, a financial adviser at Insight Financial Strategists in Boston. “For those who have no financial plan, now seems like a good time to get one.”
Investors may be worried about the impact of the coronavirus on their portfolios, but it’s still too early to say what meaningful effect it will have, said Scott Bishop, partner and executive vice president of financial planning at STA Wealth Management in Houston. The sooner the virus is contained and there’s a sustained recovery, the faster the economy will rally, he said in an email to his clients. The longer the virus is out and affecting other regions as well as travel, the greater the impact on corporate earnings, which is a long-term driver of global stock markets, he said. “In hindsight, we will know for sure, but we have some past experiences that are very similar — and in the past experiences like this, the market has been very resilient,” he said.
The Dow dropped 800 points, or a 3.05% decrease and the fourth biggest single-day drop in history, on Aug. 14, 2019, but investors’ portfolios were not harmed in the long run, said Andrew Westlin, a financial planner at online advisory firm Betterment. Those who bought shares on Jan. 2, 2019 and held on to them were up 24% at the end of the year (so someone who invested $10,000 at the beginning of last year would have $12,428 at the end of the year). Those who sold out of the market entirely on Aug. 14 lost out on 12% of gains. In the previous scenario, they’d have walked away with $11,061, Westlin calculated. For those who decided to buy back in when the Dow recovered the 800 points (which was two weeks later) would have seen a gain of 19%, compared to the 24% for those who simply stayed invested.
Similarly to the Aug. 14 drop, the impact of coronavirus fears will likely be short-lived for the stock market, as it has been for other pandemic-level health issues, including HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola and Zika, said Melissa Sotudeh, director of advisory services at Halpern Financial in Rockville, Md. China’s economy is larger than it was in 2003 during the SARS outbreak, and is much more integrated into the global supply chain, but there are many reasons to believe the impacts will be temporary, she said. “The coronavirus is not a reason to change your portfolio strategy,” she said.
Still, some investors may just not feel comfortable with the market fluctuations, at which point now may be an appropriate time to adjust the risk in their portfolio, Westlin said. “The approach we take is looking at how long you have to save for a goal — that’s how we come up with the right level of risk,” he said. “At the end of the day, the investing strategy and risk we choose is a trade off.” The key is to avoid rash decisions sparked by fear of a downturn, he said.
Market volatility often shows the value of having bonds in a portfolio, Sotudeh said. “The ongoing income from your bond funds helps stabilize your portfolio, and these securities become more attractive to investors when equity markets are unstable, causing their prices to rise,” Sotudeh said.
There’s one other time when a person may want to consult a financial professional about their portfolios amid market volatility: when they’re nearing retirement. These investors have less time for their portfolios to recover, and if they’re too heavily invested in equities, they could curtail their future assets. Studies have shown some baby boomers are investing much more in risk than they should.
That’s why advisers typically suggest investors stay logged out of their retirement accounts, or tune out any sensational talks about a market downturn or steep drops in stock indexes.
“Timing the market is futile but sticking with your allocation in the up and downs prove to be the best course over the long term,” said Christopher Beste, a financial adviser at RFG Advisory in Vestavia Hills, Ala. “We can’t control the markets but we can control emotions.”