Now is not the time to panic with your 401(k) investments. Experts say to make these moves instead

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The stock market's wild ride this week may have you questioning your retirement investing strategy.

On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed more than1,100 points before rebounding to close slightly higher. However, Tuesday's early market activity ushered in a new triple-digit drop before the index began to bounce back midday.

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For 401(k) plan and other retirement investors, the first instinct may be to move to safer assets.

Alight Solutions, which tracks 401(k) trading activity, has seen net trades from equity to fixed income in light of the recent rout, a company spokeswoman said.

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But experts generally caution against making sudden moves that may contradict your long-term retirement goals.

“It's especially important to not panic,” said Rita Assaf, vice president of retirement leadership at Fidelity Investments. “Stick to your long-term plan.”

Historically, a stark market downturn tends to precede a period of positive performance, Assaf said. If you sell your stocks while they're down, you will miss out on that upside.

Many investors learned that lesson the hard way during the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis, said Sri Reddy, senior vice president of retirement income and solutions at Principal Financial Group.

When the S&P 500 index dropped by 40% to 50%, many investors clamored to move all of their assets to money market accounts. By the time they decided they were comfortable to put their money back in stocks, they had already gone up.

“There's no time that can make up for that kind of loss,” Reddy said.

The lesson: It's important to identify a level of volatility you're comfortable with and stay the course during choppy market activity.

“The reward doesn't come without the risk,” Reddy said.

Still, it would be wise to take this week's rocky market ride as inspiration to shore up your retirement investing strategy.

Revisit your allocations

Because bond returns are often inversely correlated to equities, investors tend to turn to them in times of trouble.

But if you're getting bond returns of 1% to 1.5%, or even slightly higher, you're accepting a negative net real return, Reddy said.

Still, it is important to have a healthy mix of equities and bonds.

Ideally, your diversified investment strategy will expose you to different areas of the market to help manage your overall portfolio risk, Assaf said. That includes U.S. small cap, large cap and international stocks, as well as investment grade bonds.

Because stocks have generally climbed for a prolonged period of time, it's also important to check to make sure that your portfolio has not drifted to a higher equity allocation than you originally intended, Assaf said.

“You want to make sure your portfolio is balanced and that your equity allocation is in line with your goals,” Assaf said.

More from Fixed Income Strategies:
How rising interest rates may affect your bond portfolio in retirement
What new life expectancy tables mean for required withdrawals from IRAs, 401(k) plans
'We are in a very precarious position.' How bond ladders can help fight rising interest rates

Adjust your return expectations

The Federal Reserve is poised to raise interest rates in an effort to curb inflation.

But if inflation still continues to climb, it may drive nominal profits higher. However, your real profits may stay the same or even be less, Reddy said.

Consequently, returns may be more muted for the foreseeable future than they have been in the past 10 years. Still, they will be higher than zero and higher than what you can get by investing in bonds.

“Over the long-term, you're probably still better off in equities as your best source of investable assets,” Reddy said. “But it will probably make a lot of people queasy along the way.”

Make sure you have ample cash

Having enough cash set aside for your near-term needs will make you better prepared to weather market shocks.

If you are near or already in retirement, make sure you have ample liquidity that will provide for one to two years of your spending needs, Reddy advised.

“What you don't want to do is have a market correction and then you start withdrawing money out of the market,” he said.

Investors of all ages should have three to six months of cash to cover essential expenses set aside in an emergency fund, Assaf said.

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Resist the urge to check your account

Amid dramatic market headlines, some retirement investors will log into their accounts two to three times a day to check on their money, Reddy said.

But keep in mind the balances you're seeing probably have not been updated to reflect real-time activity. Because 401(k) plans are made up of mutual funds, the latest balances are typically not available until the end of the business day.

Most people tend to underperform the broader markets because their timing is always off, Reddy said.

“You can never predict the big moves up, the big moves down or the intraday volatility,” he said.

Seek professional guidance

Having a long-term plan tailored to your needs and goals makes it easier to stay the course.

To make sure you're on track, it's best to consult a professional financial advisor who can help you prepare for all scenarios, Assaf said.

 

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