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An Investor’s Guide to the Market Downturn

Concerned about the recent turbulence in the stock market? Use this guide to plan smart steps to help make the right decisions during heightened uncertainty.


Dan Egan | Director of Behavioral Finance & Investing

Prologue, headfake, or detox? What we're confident in for 2019, now.

We know you’ll be skeptical, but 2018 was a pretty average year in financial markets. Normal can feel extreme after the uncanny calmness of 2017. The financial press is certainly excited—news at last. One thing we’re confident of: Negative, sensational articles rarely precede decisions we’re proud of.

Answers to Your Pressing Questions

Before we bury gold bars in the backyard, let’s take a deep breath and consider the future. Looking ahead, we see a few key questions you might want answers to:


Why do market downturns happen?

Market downturns are driven by expectations for the economy, regulation, taxation, politics, and our broader society. There’s hardly ever any one factor we can point to; rather, a combination of factors come together to change markets.

During every stock market drop, you’ll hear numerous explanations why the market sold off, and how you can protect yourself from losses. But usually if you put that advice to work, you’re likely to do more harm than good by locking in losses—not to mention the effect of derailing your financial plans. Here’s how we think about downturns as opportunities for discipline.

Our Advice during Market Downturns

Experiencing Short-Term Losses Is a Part of Long-Term Gains

Far from unusual, downturns are an integral part of even the highest returning investments.

Advice for a Market Downturn: Have a Calm Heart and Clear Mind

Some financial pundits say a market correction is due. Here’s how to prepare yourself.

What have we learned from downturns?

First, keep in mind that short-term losses are an expected part of investing.

At Betterment, we believe that disciplined strategic investing will win out in the long run – which is to say, we see no greater potential loss for the average investor than when they focus on market-timing, stock picking or active trading. As such, we relay the time-tested lessons that we – and long-term investors across the street – have learned:

  1. Selloffs happen for many reasons, as do rallies. Today’s selloff is not a strong indication that tomorrow it will happen again. Usually, rallies follow selloffs: the stock market goes up on average, after all.
  2. If you see losses in your account and your first instinct is to make an allocation change, consider the downside of being reactive rather than proactive. Making decisions in the heat of the moment rarely go well. Instead, write out a downturn plan—and stick to it.
  3. The US capital gains tax structure incentivizes investors to remain in the market long-term, so don’t forget about the money you’ll owe to the IRS if you realize the gains you’ve made.
  4. Avoid “selling low, buying high” – which happens when you de-risk after a selloff, and take on more risk after a recovery. This is called performance chasing, and it almost never works.

What smart moves can we make during downturns?

Depending on your liquidity needs, risk tolerance, and goal horizon, consider your investments and ensure that the risk you’re taking—which is responsible for the losses, as well as gains, you’re receiving—still fits in with your financial objectives. Keeping the above lessons in mind, there are still some actions you are able to take:

  1. Revisit your current investment goals at Betterment and your sense of priority for each. You might consider investing more heavily in a Safety Net goal or investing your deposits in a low-risk account, Smart Saver, while you decide how to invest for longer-term goals. Having a known safety buffer can make it easier to stay the course when markets are choppy.
  2. “Set it and forget it.” This is the advice we’ve given since 2012, which is based on long-standing evidence that panic-induced account changes and monitoring (which happen more during volatile markets) can end up hurting your goals. If you want to be stressed and likely to make bad decisions, monitoring your portfolio more is a great way to do it.
  3. Tweak your risk level. But make less extreme changes than you adrenaline wants you to. If you zero out risk, make sure to have a re-entry plan, lest you sell low and buy high. For more information on how to balance risk and return, with your liquidity needs, horizon, and risk tolerance in mind, see here.

How Betterment Helps During Downturns

Remember that when we propose your recommended allocation, we have taken into consideration many possible market scenarios that may play out in the future, and arrived at an optimal recommendation for you. Our advice is based on you weathering interim market downturns with the understanding that as you get closer to your goal horizon, you should be incrementally reducing your risk exposure (or we can do it for you automatically). Historical data suggests that customers who follow our advice are more likely to stay on track to reach their goals, even through the chaos of 2008.

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