coronavirus

Dos and Don'ts to Avoid Panic About Your 401(K)

The first week of March saw the S&P 500 index swing up or down more than 2.5% for four days straight amid growing concerns around a new coronavirus outbreak

illustration of a person climbing a ladder toward a giant basket filled with eggs labeled 401(k)
Gabi Campanario/Seattle Times/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As the stock market cratered again due to crashing oil prices and coronavirus fears, many investors grappled with pulling money out of equities and stock funds and moving it to safer investments, including bond funds, money market accounts — and cash.

It’s been an ongoing quandary as investors were already skittish after a roller-coaster first week of March that saw the S&P 500 index swing up or down more than 2.5% for four days straight.

Emotional reactions from investors are certainly not unprecedented — they need help and want answers.

“In increased times of market volatility, we tend to see increased digital and phone activity from customers,” Fidelity Investments, the largest 401(k) provider in the U.S., said in a statement to CNBC. “This is no different from previous periods of market volatility and is to be expected given the need for additional guidance or reassurance on an existing investment plan.”

While Fidelity does not monitor daily trading activity within its retirement products, Alight Solutions has been tracking 401(k) data since 1997. It found trading activity in 401(k) retirement plans rose to nearly 16 times greater than average at the end of February, an all-time record, and has fluctuated between normal, high and moderate levels since then. Monday will likely see another bumpy ride for 401(k) trading activity, Alight said.

All of this makes it difficult for many investors to heed the advice of financial advisors, who often say to “stay the course” when the markets are volatile. With the market’s roller-coaster ride, long-term investors who have their money in retirement accounts shouldn’t panic. Rather, consider taking these proactive steps — some do’s and don’ts — right now:

Do think about when you’ll retire. Your “time horizon” is key. Someone in their 20s should be much more aggressive than someone in their 50s or 60s.

“For those in their 20s and 30s and even some in their 40s, they will have decades until retirement and should take market swings in stride,” said Rob Seltzer, a CPA at Seltzer Business Management in Los Angeles. “They are a small blip on the radar, so to speak, during their careers.”

If you’re less than five years away from retirement or have already retired, you should be more conservative with your investments.

Do check your asset allocation. Younger investors need to keep in mind that the money in their 401(k) plans won’t have to be tapped for a long time.

“The drops may present some opportunities,” said certified financial planner Roger Ma, founder of Lifelaidout and author of “Work Your Money, Not Your Life.” “For those whose asset allocation has moved far from their original targets, they may want to adjust future purchases toward a higher percentage of stocks.”

Older investors may want to consider moving some stock funds that have over-performed and buying more fixed income investments.

“As people get older and get closer to retirement, they should gradually tweak their allocations to have a larger allocation to bonds,” Seltzer said. However, if you’re investing in a target-date fund in your 401(k), the allocation of stocks and bonds automatically becomes less aggressive and more conservative overall as you get closer to your retirement date.

Don’t rush to make decisions. Contact your financial advisor and have a conversation about the markets and your financial goals.

Zaneilia Harris
PRESIDENT OF HARRIS & HARRIS WEALTH MANAGEMENT GROUP

Do review your contribution rate. “For most clients, it makes sense for them to stick with their schedule of putting money in their 401(k) every couple of weeks,” Ma said. You want to ensure you are contributing enough money to your 401(k) account to get a matching contribution from your employer, if one is offered. Now is a great opportunity to buy stocks “on discount” and also get “free money” from your employer by putting in your own dollars.

Remember, you can’t time the market. “You never know when the market is going to have a good day,” said Adam Grealish, director of investing at robo-advisor and financial technology firm Betterment. “Between 1993 and 2013, the S&P 500 had an annual return of 9.2%.

“But if you had missed just the 10 best market days during that time period, your annual returns would have dropped to roughly half, or 5.4%,” he added. “If the market is going to have a good day, then you want to be there for it — not sitting out on the sidelines.”

Don’t make knee-jerk changes. Research has shown that nearly one-third of investors have admitted to making an emotional decision to sell in a 401(k) plan — and then regretted it. And almost half of those who sold described their investment knowledge as “expert or advanced.”

Take advantage of tools that your company may offer with its 401(k) plan, including access to personal investment advice and/or professionally managed accounts.

Seeking the help of an investment advisor can help remove the emotion of investing during volatile market times.

“Don’t rush to make decisions,” said Zaneilia Harris, CFP and president of Harris & Harris Wealth Management Group in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. “Contact your financial advisor and have a conversation about the markets and your financial goals.

“They are part of your personal advisory team and there to educate and counsel you on what to do now,” she added. 

Don’t take an early withdrawal. It’s almost never a good idea to cash out. If you take a distribution from your 401(k) and you’re under age 59½, you’ll have to pay ordinary income taxes and a 10% penalty. In addition, by taking the money out early, you’re also forfeiting tax-advantaged growth. An early distribution from a traditional 401(k) account can also trigger a higher tax bill.

Don’t get distracted from your goals. Follow these wise words from Morningstar’s director of personal finance Christine Benz: “The right response to market downdrafts really depends on you, your life stage, and what your financial priorities are.”

Generally, money for short-term financial goals should be in safe investments, not stocks. Meanwhile, funds for intermediate and long-term needs, including your retirement, can be invested in riskier assets, including stocks.

If you’re less than five years away from retirement, you want to be more focused on protecting your assets, which may mean keeping more of your 401(k) plan money in a stable value or short-term bond funds instead of stock funds.

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This story first appeared on CNBC.com. More from CNBC's Invest in You:

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