Prepare for the Bear, Whenever It Arrives
Legendary investor Sir John Templeton often reminded investors that bear markets are inevitable, and nobody can reliably predict their depth or duration. The current run for U.S. stocks is well past the average bull market’s life of just over four years. As of this writing, the S&P 500 Index set a new all-time high. Despite the cyclical 10% correction being well overdue, the market's steady slog of recovery continues with no immediate signs of decline in sight.
This bull market does not appear to have produced areas of obvious overreach like the 2000 tech stock mania or the mid-decade bubble in home prices and financing. But if the catalysts for bear markets were obvious in advance, it would be much easier to dodge the decline. That said, there are some steps to consider, depending on one’s age and investment objectives.
Assess your progress. Stocks have produced outsize returns for those who held or expanded their equity positions in late 2008 or early 2009. Perhaps you can afford to lower your portfolio’s current risk profile a bit without undermining your long-term goals. Prime candidates are those positions that have shown the strongest gains. It’s not an all-or-nothing decision; even modest repositioning can make a quantitative and psychological difference in a significant downturn.
Check your diversification. Some market sectors haven’t shot the lights out and display relatively low correlation to stocks. They may not be less risky in the near term, but their risk-reward equation may be more favorable.
Respect cash. There’s practically zero yield these days on “cash equivalents” such as money market funds and short-term CDs. But with so many other asset categories having traded up, padding that cash position may be strategic. In a broad financial market sell-off, cash lets you buy what’s really down without having to sell something else that’s also down, just not as much.
Don’t fear being a little bit wrong. What’s so bad about reducing one’s risk even if the market does continue higher? This isn’t about bragging rights or the ability to predict market moves. It’s about measuring and managing risk from a position of strength and equanimity rather than fear and loathing.
Embrace the Bear. For long-term investors, market downturns can be welcome events, and the ability to act rationally and timely can be very rewarding. Historically, in the early stages of bull markets, about 70% of the return comes in 50% of the time. The S&P 500 bottomed on March 9, 2009, then gained more than 37% in just the next two months. Missing that initial spurt would have knocked the cumulative bull-market gain through August from approximately 210% to 150%.
Only short sellers truly relish the prospect of a bear market. The trick is to accept its inevitability and treat it as just another phase in a disciplined, long-term strategy.
Take Action: One good way to assess whether you are really ready for the bear is to fine-tune your risk tolerance and make sure your portfolio aligns with your risk tolerance. Technology now makes it possible to determine your "risk number" -- the level of risk that directly addresses your aversion to loss as well as your appetite for gain. You can then compare your risk number with the risk within your portfolio. Take the risk analysis quiz now.