Financial expert on your 401k fears amid COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 4:36 PM, Mar 19, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has sent the U.S. financial markets on a downward spiral. Last week, in just one day, the Dow Jones Industrial saw a 13 percent drop; it’s single biggest drop ever.

“A lot of people are scared,” said Kelly Lannan with Fidelity Investments. “They don’t quite know what they are seeing, especially the average investor who is not following day to day.”

Lannan explained most people looking at their 401k accounts are worried but advises people to put their market fears and emotions aside.

“Market volatility can really be nerve-racking,” Lannan explained. “We get it from Fidelity investments perspective, and more importantly, we are here to help.”

Fidelity is advising the best move right now may be no move at all. Referencing social media posts with the phase “don’t touch your face, don’t touch your 401k,” she explains most investors shouldn’t panic and divest their stocks during the economic downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The most important thing to say, and I know this is really hard to hear, is not to panic,” Lannan explained. “This is a part of life, and the important thing to note, as we saw in 2008, is these downturns are usually followed by a recovery.”

Not divesting doesn’t mean ignoring your investments and portfolio. In fact, Lannan believes those concerned about their portfolios and 401k’s should use this time to get more familiar with their investment plan and goals. She recommends a few steps in that review process:

· Step One: Understand where you have your money by taking a look at your asset allocation and assess if it aligns with your age and your time horizon. If it does not, start making a plan to restructure your investments when the market starts to recover.

· Step Two: Assess whether you have a diversified investment strategy. Diversification helps to soften the impact during market downturns. For those who have an employer sponsored retirement plan, you can reach out to your plan sponsor and ask question or get guidance on this.

· Step Three: Take a look at your emergency fund. Fidelity recommends having three to six months of your essential expenses in savings. If you don’t have that and are concerned with possible unemployment due to the economic downturn, start to assess which investments you could move money from.

Making a move, in terms of selling off your stocks, may not be the best decision now. However, better understanding your investment portfolio may help you make a better investment decision when the markets recover or even calm your concerns as they struggle during this downturn.

“We know from behavioral finance that people make really, really bad decisions when they panic,” said Robert Stammers with the Charter Financial Analyst Institute.

The CFA also recommends most invested in the stock market should hold off on divesting, especially if they have a long-term investment strategy.

“If they do sell they’re going to be selling in a bad market,” Stammer explained. “They’re basically going to be doing what people tell you not to do, which is sell low and buy high, when the market comes back.”

Historically, the market always rebounds. In 2008, it took five years, and in 2015 the market bounced back in about 13 months. Stammer pointed out, even with major downswings, overtime, those who stay invested still see an annual eight to nine percent return on average.

“People did not think we’re going to get through the 2008 crisis,” Stammer said. “More than 60 percent said, ‘that’s it, this is never coming back, it is never going to be like this again.’ Then, after it did come back, the return on the market was like 17 percent.”

The “stay the course” advice applies to mostly those with time to wait out the market. However, if you are closer to retirement, or in it, both Stammer and Lannan suggest you may want to get individual advice from a financial professional.

When seeking help from a financial professional, it is wise to ask if that professional is a fiduciary, which is a financial advisor legally required to put your interest over theirs. Unfortunately, during economic downturns emotional investors are often easy targets for scammers or individuals selling financial instruments acting as financial advisors.

The CFA has a website dedicated to the questions you should ask when looking for a financial advisor’s help.