With S&P 500 down 20% this year, retirement investors flee to safety and reconsider stock, bond strategy

Personal Finance

Despite stock market gains in the last couple of days, some investors are clearly tired of seeing losses in their retirement accounts this year. New data from Alight Solutions shows last month the vast majority of daily trades in 401(k) plans went from equities to fixed income.

“Almost every time Wall Street has a major dip, we see people taking their money out of stocks and moving it into bonds,” said Rob Austin, head of research for Alight Solutions, which measures the daily trading activity of more than 2 million 401(k) investors, with about $200 billion in assets.

Austin noted the movement was more pronounced in September than in August and July. “It was not surprising that it coincided at the time that the market fell,” he said.

Investors are seeking safety

Investors sought safety mostly in stable value funds, with 80% of traded assets put there in September, according to the Alight Solutions 401(k) Index. Money market funds garnered 15% of inflows, while bond funds got about 2% of assets.

Meanwhile, 50% of money that was traded came out target date funds, which are designed to invest more conservatively as you get older. And more than a third of outflows came out of large-cap U.S. equity and mid-cap U.S. equity funds.

Many stick with a 60/40 stocks, bonds split

The traditional portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds has lost about 20% of its value year to date, but most investment advisors recommend sticking with a balanced strategy. With bond yields improving, that mix looks better than it has in years, some say.

Financial advisors also caution against switching strategies when the markets are in turmoil. Trying to time the market can mean investors lock in losses and miss out on the upside.

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“If you wake up in the morning and decide to cash out and capture losses, it’s either too late or a bad decision,” said certified financial planner Jon Ulin with Ulin & Co. Wealth Management in Boca Raton, Florida. “Cash does not provide much in the way of a dividend and will not help to make up for 8% losses to inflation over time in as much as a diversified portfolio.” 

The 60/40 split can be a good starting point for moderate-risk investors who don’t need to pull the money for 10 years or more.  Some advisors say what we saw this year with stocks and bonds both declining at the same time could be an anomaly.

“Provided that inflation is under control, we expect that bonds will revert to their historical role of both a safe asset and one that provides relatively safe income,” said Arthur J.W. Ebersole of Ebersole Financial in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts.

Cash is an option for the risk averse

For investors who really can’t stomach the risk, cash may not be a bad placeholder for now. But the risk adverse should know it is difficult to generate the returns they will need to retire with a 3% return.  

“It’s really easy for my teammates [and I], or our industry, to say, ‘Well, don’t worry, just take the long-term approach and everything over the long-term will be fine,'” said Jason Ray, CEO of Zenith Wealth Partners in Philadelphia.

Ray suggests investors break down their portfolios to see the returns in different asset classes. He recommends adding dividend-paying stocks as a value play and suggests younger investors with a longer time horizon add alternative investments, including investing in early stage startup companies and real estate.  

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