MONEY

Avoid the market carnage: Stick to the plan

A diversified strategy and periodic readjustments will help you steer clear of market madness. Tune out all the noise and stick to the game plan.

Question: I generally review my portfolio twice a year to see if I need to make any adjustments. But given that the market has been down in recent months, I’m wondering whether I’m better off waiting until the market rebounds or sticking to my usual schedule. What do you think? –Todd M., Bryan, Ohio

Answer: I assume that when you talk about adjusting your portfolio twice a year, you mean that you’re rebalancing to bring your mix of stocks and bonds back to its original proportions.

And if that’s the case, then the strategy you’ve been following up to now makes perfect sense to me. As different investments earn different returns, your portfolio’s proportions will shift over time. So you periodically need to sell some shares of investments that have done relatively well and plow the proceeds into those that have trailed – or just funnel new money into laggards – to bring your portfolio back to its proper balance of risk vs. return.

Granted, one could argue about which of the many different rebalancing strategies available is the most effective. (I’m a member of the “once a year is enough” club myself, mostly because it’s easy and investors are more likely to stick with what’s simple.) But the most important thing is that you’re consistent – that is, you choose a method and then stick to it.

All of which is to say that I believe you ought to think twice – or maybe even three or four times – before you abandon your current strategy.

I can understand why you might have the urge to change your game plan. You’re no doubt hoping that by waiting a bit some of your battered investments will recover and you won’t have to realize losses.

But the whole point of building a mix of different types of assets based on your goals, time horizon and risk tolerance, and then rebalancing back to that blend on a regular basis is that you can’t predict the future. You don’t know when the market will fall or when it will recover. You don’t know the best time to get out of stocks and into bonds or vice versa. You don’t even know when it’s the ideal time to rebalance your portfolio, except in retrospect, of course.

So to deal with that lack of knowledge, you create a strategy, a disciplined system that can help guide you through the uncertainty.

I know that some people may see this as a head-in-the-sand approach especially given what’s been going on lately, what with major investment bank Bear Stearns getting snapped up at a fire-sale price, the Fed scrambling to keep the economy afloat and investors worldwide wondering what the next shock might be.

After all, in fast-moving and perilous times like these, don’t you have to be most nimble, most flexible, most willing to try something new?

Actually, no. It’s in times of crisis when you most need to stick to your plan. The far bigger danger in a volatile market like today’s is that you end up making a move that seems brilliant at the moment but turns out to be not so smart in the future.

Or, if you really get into the spirit of second-guessing your plan, maybe you end up making a series of such moves as you react differently to each crisis du jour.

That’s not to say you can’t ever deviate from your plan. If you find that you don’t have the stomach for risk you thought you had when you created your portfolio – it’s not unusual for investors to overestimate their appetite for volatility when the market is doing well – then maybe you need to scale back your stock holdings a bit. And if that’s the case, there’s no need to wait until you make your usual adjustment.

Similarly, if you’ve concluded after careful deliberation that some of your stocks or funds are clunkers that need to be replaced quickly, then replace them as soon as you find acceptable substitutes. You might even want to occasionally sell some holdings in taxable accounts to reap tax losses that can be used to offset other gains or even ordinary income.

But, remember, if you stray from your game plan too often and begin basing your rebalancing decisions on gut feelings about what the market may or may not do and when it might or might not do it, then you don’t really have a plan anymore. You’re just playing hunches.

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