For investors, one word says it all about the wild swings in the stock market: anxiety.
Financial advisers say many of their clients are deeply worried – even fearful – and looking for guidance. Skyrocketing oil prices and free-falling housing values, among other economic woes, have hammered many portfolios.
New turbulence came with government-backed mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rumored to be on the ropes and Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, absorbing a 14 percent drop in its share price. The Dow Jones industrial average, after falling below 11,000 for the first time in two years, rallied to close at 11,100.54, down more than 125 points.
“People don't want to hear that their financial advisers are freaking out, and I'm a little freaked out today,” said Bob Dreizler, an independent financial consultant.
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A year of mounting troubles – a severe housing slump, a global credit crunch, an unprecedented spike in oil prices – has strained the financial system to its limits. More people and institutions are staggering under debt. Now come reports Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two key pillars in mortgage lending, could even be facing insolvency or a government takeover.
“This is a historic time,” said Jim McCarthy, chief operating officer of Legacy Capital Management, a money manager. “This is a period that will be reviewed in the history books and studies. There will be lessons learned.”
But until the lessons are learned in the future, what should investors do now? Here are some options to consider from the pros.
Try to ride it out
This is the old favorite, based on the past usually repeating itself. Dreizler said the adage still holds, even if history may look slightly less predictable now: If you don't need your money for five to 10 years, hang tough with your portfolio.
“The hard part is when to get back into the market,” he said. “People wait, wait and wait too long. When it does hit bottom – and I don't see bottom right around the corner – it's usually a fairly rapid bounce-back.”
Richard Vandagriff, 66, is retired. He said he is keeping his money in the stock market, though seeing it batter his investments “has been just brutal.”
Yet Vandagriff, who retired a week ago from Vision Service Plan Inc., figures he'd do more damage to his wallet if he pulls out now.
“I don't believe in market timing,” he said. “I'm in it for the long haul.”
At Morningstar, the big Chicago-based investment researcher, personal finance director Christine Benz said investors who can stay the course – and she thinks 10 years is a good timeline – will see the best results.
“Bottom line, if you have a long-term time horizon, stocks are going to be your best chance at earning a decent rate above and beyond inflation,” she said.
But advisers say many clients are scared by the falling market. So they're suggesting another option to …
Lower your risk level
This is more of the middle ground.
“One thing you can do rather than jump in and out is lower your risk,” Dreizler said. “Say you're at 70 percent stocks. Go down to 60 percent.”
Of course, he acknowledged that some people are now beyond taking such a suggestion. They can't take it anymore. They're not gamblers. His advice, then, is to …
Move into cash
This is the safest option, the one used by some of the region's wealthiest investors.
“We are about preservation of capital first and growth second,” said McCarthy of Legacy Capital.
McCarthy said many of the firm's clients – with more than $1 million in assets and an average portfolio of $2.5 million – have moved to safe Treasury bills and high-quality bonds over the past year.
“We've been moving into cash and not riding it out,” he said. “For us, it's wealth preservation.”