How should retirees deal with crazy markets when they don’t have time to “stay the course”?

Investing is a young person’s game, am I right? I mean, I can understand the argument for ignoring short-term market dives when it’ll be decades before you need to actually touch the money. But what about retirees who need income today? Should retirees and near-retirees be cashing out of stocks on fears that a worldwide pandemic will continue to throttle markets?

I recently discussed this concept on CNBC. Click the image to watch the video.

First, it’s important to address this question on an emotional level before attempting to respond rationally, because it’s not cold, calculating rationale that leads the charge in times of high market volatility, especially of the downward variety. (Indeed, as my friend Jeff Levine said, “Nobody ever seems to mind volatility when it’s up.”) Furthermore, when we are feeling and responding through the fast-acting, impulsive processor in our brain, thoughtful logic isn’t particularly comforting.

Retirees, in particular, may feel downright scared, and perhaps their fear is justified, because:

  1. They feel disempowered because they’re no longer earning a paycheck and are now reliant entirely on sources of income beyond their control. 
  2. They don’t have as much time as an investor in his or her 20s, 30s or 40s to recoup losses. 
  3. The math does change for those who are in the distribution phase of their life. Losses can indeed be compounded when you’re taking income out of a portfolio, rather than opportunistically buying through regular contributions.

Therefore, whether you’re a financial advisor counseling someone through turbulent markets or a white-knuckled investor eyeing the eject button, please know this: Every emotion is valid and worthy of acknowledgement. The best financial advisors will take it one step further and explore the emotions in play, even enlisting them in support of the best long-term investment strategy.

Once we’ve addressed this valid concern on an emotional level, it’s time to look at it from a logical perspective, and indeed, for most retirees, it’s important to maintain a healthy allocation to stock exposure in order to ensure that your lifestyle keeps up with inflation. In determining how much risk any investor should take, one’s “time horizon”—the ability to take risk—is a material consideration. A retiree in her late 60s has a shorter time horizon than a new investor in his early 20s, but, however limited, the retiree’s time horizon still isn’t zero.

Retirees need to satisfy income needs today, but they also need to address income needs in the future. Therefore, while it’s a slight oversimplification of a total return portfolio strategy, in times of extreme market volatility, I would invite retirees to view the meaningful portion of conservative fixed income in their portfolio as their income engine in the short-term while their portfolio’s stock exposure is designed to generate income years from now.

(Of course, this presumes that one’s fixed income portfolio is actually conservative, a stabilizing force in your portfolio. Corporate, longer-term, and especially high-yield bonds tend to have equity-like characteristics in down markets; so dare to be boring with your fixed income allocation.)

The optimal percentage of equities in a retirement portfolio will be driven by the retiree’s need to take risk. If you don’t need to take the risk, who am I (or any other financial person with a propensity for stock market cheerleading) to convince you otherwise? Yes, you might need a boost from market returns to outpace inflation. And yes, even if you’d struggle to spend all your money in this lifetime if you kept it in a Mason jar, you might consider investing it for the next generation. But there’s no moral imperative to endure market volatility if you don’t need or want the long-term benefits we expect to receive.

And that’s especially because the most important factor in determining how much equity risk you take in your portfolio is your internal willingness to assume risk. This is the gut-check test, and if you’re at risk of bailing out at the bottom—the worst possible time to sell—you must limit your exposure to stocks. Sticking with a conservative portfolio will earn you more in the long run than fleeing a more aggressive one.

Of course, you can only “stay the course” if you have one. You can only stick with the strategy that exists. Typically, emotions are heightened among those who don’t fully understand or can’t fully articulate their strategy and especially among those who don’t have one. 

Too many investors own a collection of securities—or even a collection of someone else’s strategies—that have built up over a lifetime, rather than a well-designed, purposely built, customized portfolio. Those investors should be concerned, and they should use this market hysteria du jour as the catalyst for a substantive portfolio review.

If you’re in the minority, however, who do have an understandable, goals-based strategy—who have considered their ability, willingness and need to take risk—and who have proportionately set their exposure to stocks, then by all means, rest easy and rebalance. Know that however ugly this particular market event gets, it likely will not amount to a blip on the radar when looking at your lifetime of investing. Acting rashly in these situations is more likely to do harm than good.