The Market Selloff: What Should Retirees Do Now?

The worst thing to do is panic. But that doesn't mean you should sit back and watch your nest egg disappear.

There’s nothing like a market rout to remind investors of the importance of following the tenets of sound investing. The declines of the past few days have been doozies, making the start of 2016 a baptism by fire. In the first four trading days of the year, the Dow Jones industrial average racked up a loss of nearly 1,000 points, or more than 5%. Selling accelerated on January 7, pushing the Dow down nearly 400 points, or 2.3%, to 16,514. Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was down 2.4% and the Nasdaq Composite index tumbled 3.0%.

The impetus for the selloff here is a freefall in Chinese share prices as investors fret over just how sharply the world’s second largest economy is slowing. Add to that concerns about the course of Federal Reserve action, saber-rattling between Iran and Saudi Arabia, North Korean’s claim that it has tested a hydrogen bomb, plunging oil prices and the fact that the current bull market is nearly seven years old, making it the third longest since the Great Depression, and you have all the ingredients for a significant downturn.

The market mayhem is particularly worrisome for retirees, who have less time to make up for big market declines. Here are some tips for how to survive the current turmoil:

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Don’t panic. China’s worries, strictly speaking, aren’t ours, although what’s happening in China has a ripple effect throughout the world economy. China accounts for just 7% of U.S. exports, representing less than 1% of gross domestic product. Kiplinger’s expects the U.S. economy to expand by 2.7% this year, and analysts expect earnings for U.S. companies to rise by about 6% from 2015. Those are not the conditions for a severe and protracted bear market. Still, if what looks like a correction today turns into a bear market tomorrow, don’t forget one of the important lessons from the devastating 2007-09 downturn, says financial planner Cicily Maton, of Aequus Wealth Management Resources, in Chicago: “Even in the worst of times, recoveries happen within a reasonable period.”

Remember, the headlines are not about you. “What’s happening in the headlines is probably not what’s happening in your personal account,” says T. Rowe Price senior financial planner Judith Ward. Retirees, especially, are likely to have a healthy mix of bonds and cash in their accounts to temper stock-market declines. The market is not a monolith, and some of your stock holdings may buck the downtrend. Do you own shares in Wal-Mart Stores (symbol WMT, $65.03)? Then your stock was up 2.3% on January 7.

Look long-term. Even retirees should have an investment horizon long enough to weather this storm, or worse. In a retirement that can last decades, new retirees should keep 40% to 60% of their assets in stocks, says T. Rowe Price. And, because over time stocks stand up to inflation better than do bonds and cash, even 90-year-olds should keep at least 20% of their assets in stocks.

Check your withdrawals. Fight the urge to cut and run, and avoid selling your depreciated stocks, if you can. Cut back on withdrawals from your portfolio to meet living expenses, especially if you’re taking out more than 4% to 5% annually, and consider deferring gifts, trips and other discretionary expenditures until the market stabilizes, says Anthony Ogorek, of Ogorek Wealth Management, in Williamsville, N.Y. Recall that you have until December 31 to take required minimum distributions from your retirement account if you are 70½ or older. “You want to take as little from your assets as possible,” says T. Rowe's Ward. “This is a good time of year to plan your budget,” she says. “Maybe this year you don’t have to treat for a family-reunion cruise.”

Review your allocation. If you’ve been regularly rebalancing your portfolio, you’ve already been cutting back on stocks periodically over past few years. Now is a particularly good time to revisit your investment mix and make sure that it is consistent with your tolerance for risk. “We always tell clients to use downturns like this as a bellwether,” says Aequus Wealth Management's Maton. “No one should lose sleep over what’s happening in the stock market—if they are, then they’re over-exposed,” she says.

Make sure you’re diversified. Investors who’d planned to dump bond holdings in anticipation of higher interest rates just got a good lesson in how bonds, especially high-quality government issues, can provide ballast in a portfolio. Since the start of the year, the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury bond has dropped from 2.27% to 2.15%, and because bond prices and interest rates move in opposite directions, iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF (IEF, $106.88), an exchange-traded fund that tracks intermediate-term Treasuries, has climbed 1.2%. In general, investors should own a mix of domestic and foreign bonds, U.S. and overseas stocks, and within the stock allocation, a variety of market sectors. No one sector should claim more than 5% to 10% of holdings, says Ward.

Stick with high-quality holdings. This is no time to speculate. Look for companies with dependable earnings, impeccable balance sheets and healthy dividends, or funds that invest in such companies. Vanguard Dividend Growth (VDIGX), a member of the Kiplinger 25 list of great no-load mutual funds, delivers steady returns with below-average volatility by focusing on companies with low debt, high profitability and a consistent history of raising dividends. PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio (SPLV, $37.33) is a good choice for ETF investors. Opportunistic investors can use market volatility to think about buying quality stocks on the cheap. One such stock is Apple (AAPL, $96.45), which has dropped 28% from its record high because of worries about slowing iPhone sales. Apple’s share sell for just 10 times estimated earnings for the fiscal year that ends next September.

Anne Kates Smith
Executive Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Anne Kates Smith brings Wall Street to Main Street, with decades of experience covering investments and personal finance for real people trying to navigate fast-changing markets, preserve financial security or plan for the future. She oversees the magazine's investing coverage,  authors Kiplinger’s biannual stock-market outlooks and writes the "Your Mind and Your Money" column, a take on behavioral finance and how investors can get out of their own way. Smith began her journalism career as a writer and columnist for USA Today. Prior to joining Kiplinger, she was a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report and a contributing columnist for TheStreet. Smith is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., the third-oldest college in America.