Retirees, Rebalance Your Portfolio Even as This Bull Market Keeps Running

If you don't rebalance, your stock allocation may grow far beyond your comfort zone, setting you up for unpleasant surprises in a market downturn.

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Rebalancing a portfolio is like going to the gym. You know you should, but it’s so easy to put the task off until tomorrow, or next week, or next year.

That’s especially true when stocks, now in the ninth year of a bull market, seem to march ever higher. Shifting money from winning stocks to low-yielding bonds may sound tougher than tackling that treadmill.

Older investors may have particular trouble rebalancing—that is, routinely tweaking their portfolios to keep stock, bond and cash allocations close to their long-term targets—a recent study suggests. Researchers at Morningstar, The American College and Texas Tech University analyzed 401(k) plan participants’ responses to a risk-tolerance questionnaire. Compared with younger investors, 51- to 65-year-olds gave responses that were heavily influenced by recent stock-market performance. After a stock surge, they were more willing to take risks, and after a stock slump, they were less willing—which could lead investors to sell low and buy high. Clearly, “this is the exact opposite of what you should be doing if you’re rebalancing a portfolio,” says Michael Finke, chief academic officer at The American College and co-author of the study.

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If you don’t rebalance, your stock allocation may grow far beyond your comfort zone, setting you up for unpleasant surprises in a market downturn. Rebalancing also has its drawbacks, including transaction costs and potential tax consequences. But with a disciplined rebalancing strategy, you can minimize costs while taming portfolio risks.

Why are older investors more likely than their younger peers to have a bigger risk appetite after stocks have climbed? They may simply be paying more attention to the market, Finke says. When you’re entering retirement, he says, “you have to rely on that nest egg and can get particularly emotionally involved with your portfolio.”

Create a Routine

You can rein in that emotion by sticking with a set strategy. You could rebalance by the calendar—say, every quarter or every year. Or you could pick a threshold, rebalancing only when an allocation drifts more than 5 or 10 percentage points away from your target.

In terms of maximizing returns, it doesn’t much matter which strategy you choose—they all produce roughly the same returns, when adjusted for the level of risk in the portfolio, according to research by Vanguard. But to strike a balance between controlling risks and minimizing costs, Vanguard found it makes sense to monitor your portfolio annually or semiannually and rebalance when an allocation has drifted more than 5 percentage points from your target.

To further trim costs, rebalance with portfolio cash flows. Whenever you receive dividends or interest, take required minimum distributions, or make new contributions to your accounts, direct incoming cash toward your underweighted asset classes while pulling withdrawals from overweighted ones. That way, you reduce the need to sell securities, which reins in trading costs and taxes.

If you do need to make rebalancing trades, try to concentrate them in your tax-advantaged accounts, where you won’t trigger capital-gains taxes, says Colleen Jaconetti, senior investment analyst with Vanguard. And if you have to sell holdings in a taxable account, focus on those that will generate the least gains.

If your taxable trades are likely to generate a big tax bill, consider rebalancing just to your comfort-zone threshold rather than your long-term target. For example, you could trim a 59% stock weighting back to 55% if your long-term target is 50%. That way, you stay within your comfort zone and avoid incurring excessive costs, Jaconetti says.

For those who could use a helping hand, plenty of advisers and investment vehicles will do the rebalancing work for you. Target-date mutual funds, for example, automatically rebalance and become more conservative over time. To be rid of the rebalancing chore, however, you’d have to keep your entire portfolio in such vehicles.

Eleanor Laise
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Retirement Report
Laise covers retirement issues ranging from income investing and pension plans to long-term care and estate planning. She joined Kiplinger in 2011 from the Wall Street Journal, where as a staff reporter she covered mutual funds, retirement plans and other personal finance topics. Laise was previously a senior writer at SmartMoney magazine. She started her journalism career at Bloomberg Personal Finance magazine and holds a BA in English from Columbia University.