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The Corona Virus and Your Retirement Portfolio: Sell, Hold, Buy?

Category: Financial and taxes in retirement

March 2, 2020 — Last week featured one of the biggest stock market sell-offs since the Great Depression. Panic set in as market professionals and plain old investors tried to sort out just how serious the impact of the Corona Virus – COVID 19 – will be on world trade and the economy. Could widespread shortages, school and factory closings, and forced quarantines throw the world into economic chaos? No one really knows, and that uncertainty was felt in the U.S. and world stock markets last week.

Some investors told their brokers to sell everything. Many advisors urged stay the course, particularly those who have the long view. Still others suggested maybe it was time to buy. Since this website is about retirement, our outlook is different from investors with a shorter time from. Last week we solicited Comments from several members on a related blog, and are reprinting them here. Please let us what you are thinking and doing about it.

Comments———-

I am sure on edge about my investments after the losses of this week. I wS told to stay the course, but at this point, I am not sure what to do. I have a gut feeling this is going to get worse before it gets better. I am very worried now. —- Maimi

It was amazing watching the run up over the past months so we were expecting some sort of correction but how weird to see the Dow at an all time high one day and a couple of days later be in free fall. Hopefully our investments are diverse enough to handle the dip. We’re sitting tight while we watch the news with our thumbs in our ears and fingers across our eyes. — Jean

We’re staying the course with primarily balanced funds, although those too are taking a hit. Glad they raised the mandatory distribution age to 72 1/2, though. Tough times for folks who have to withdraw now. — Staci

I don’t have a financial advisor but I do subscribe to several stock advisory services. So far, the services are saying to hang in there on their recommendations as the underlying value of the companies haven’t changed in the last couple of weeks and the investments are for the long haul. However, after the markets reached new all time highs several weeks ago, I sensed that things might be getting overvalued and I put stop loss orders in on all my holdings. I made the sell points rather tight relative to the then current share price and about half of my holding have stopped out. So I have a lot of cash in my account and I did use the sell off to pick up some new stocks or add to my current positions. Specifically, I bought some Chinese e-commerce and social media stocks that are cheap now but will shoot back up once the panic is over. — LS

I am my financial adviser. I have not trusted this market for the last 6 months and took a 75% cash position in January until after the election. I did buy this week. But, it still could go down more before it turns back up. No time to sell. The next 30 days will be most telling regarding the virus, but the next year will show the real impact to earnings as a fallout to what is happening now globally. MHO. — ljtucson

“Stay the course” (at least until we get out…)
I think this time will not be a quick bounce back. The Covid-19 deal is just a match lighting the tinder left by the Fed (and central banks worldwide) with their artificial 5,000 year low interest rates. It will all catch up now to real economics. If there is a quick bounce once the Fed cuts rate again next month (or in advance), it may be the last time to sell for a long while. I sold a lot about 2 weeks ago, but not nearly enough. First time I was scared out at the top instead of the bottom. —- Peder

Re. annuities, nothing wrong with them in principal (though the percentage the sales schmuck gets off the top is exorbitant), but these days, if an insurance company promises, say, 3-4% and can only buy bonds with a coupon of 1.5%, that leaves them starved for yield and drives them to ever riskier investments. Around 50% of the corporate bond market is BBB (the lowest investment-grade) and companies line up for them because of a fractional increase in yield. I imagine these days there are plenty of annuity managers who are sleeping even worse than you are. Also, not government guaranteed, if that’s important to you. Commissions on index annuities can be as high as 8% (money lost up front) and surrender charge terms as long as 15 years. — Peder

This is NOT the time to sell. Look at the crash of 2008 and how the market rebounded. Unless you must have the cash to pay for a wedding or something like that, hold on. I’m not saying the market won’t continue to go down, but at this point, the selling opportunities are over. Wait for the market to rebound. Even if it takes years, it will do so. Selling at a low point in the market is the worst thing investors can do. To quote my father, “This too shall pass.” — Ella

Thanks, Peder. I also am not a fan of annuities. Most have page after page of conditions and terms that many are not familiar with and which can hide major costs including those you mention. A super nice salesperson will explain it to you — accurately you hope. I also appreciate the comments you made about investment quality. I had not thought of that. — Self

I just met with my advisor, and I must admit, I have been panicked. She has been taking stuff out of the market and converting to cash for several months, so I am good there, but my first thought was to pull it all out of the market, convert to cash and stuff into my mattress. Of course, my advisor did not think that was the way to go! The last pandemic was influenza in 2009, and I do not remember there being such a run on the market at that time. Is everyone scared because of the virus’s economical implications as well as it being an election year? I never thought the market could sustain 29,000 – we just do not have the manufacturing or infrastructure to support in, in my opinion. So, what is one to do? — Lynne

Your comments. Please share your thoughts and plans below. Also, are you changing any of your other behaviors in light of the virus? Like not travelling, shaking hands, socializing, etc.

Posted by Admin on March 1st, 2020

46 Comments »

  1. About 10% of world GDP is directly or indirectly related to travel and tourism. Clip a lot of that off world output and all I see is cascading layoffs. The election is the least of our problems.

    by Peder — March 2, 2020

  2. Right now the S&P 500 is about where it was October of 2019. It’s still not that bad a time to sell if you’re unsure. At my age I may not live long enough to recover a 30-40% drop. The market’s had a great run and no one ever sells at the top or buys at the bottom. So you give back 10% on paper. The virus is still spreading and layoffs haven’t even started. I think this could be like a worldwide rolling 9/11. I also think the Fed (and other central banks) have led us like cattle into a blind canyon with their artificial interest rates. Where would the Dow be if interest rates were at those of the past several hundred years (about 2.5-3% + inflation)? I wouldn’t loan the government money at 1.1% when their inflation target is 2%. We keep borrowing our daily spending cash even in what advertised as “the best economy ever”. I have low confidence in the current administrations ability to handle either crisis. Trump looks at CV-19 as a “marketing problem”. Hammer/Nail, I guess… I’m a believer in the stock market, I’ve been 100% stocks forever, but my own mortality is shaking my confidence. I hope I’m wrong on everything, but after 1987, 1999, 2008, I don’t want to get clipped again. I just hope we don’t start another world war to get out of it.
    PS – My wise uncle once told me, “You’ll never go broke taking a profit”.

    by Peder — March 2, 2020

  3. Record one day gains on Dow, Nasdaq, S & P , etc. Let’s hope the rebound continues! Hubs reminded me that in the 1987 the Dow dropped 22.6% and we bought into that dip – and that is one of the things that set us on course to be able to retire in comfort. We’re not buying much anymore but I sure hope my nieces and nephews got in a little on this dip.

    by Jean — March 2, 2020

  4. Peder,
    Regarding covid-19, there is a lot of hysteria about this virus . The deaths in the state of Washington notwithstanding, it seems the virus is actually rather mild for most people. If you look at the timeline China reported that first cases were reported Dec 12 (or first cases sick enough to seek medical help). and China reported their first death in early January. The US CDC didn’t announce person-to-person transmission was confirmed until the end of January and President Trump then put the ban on flights form Wuhan early Feb (and was loudly criticized from doing so by the usual suspects). That means that for at LEAST 6 weeks – between Dec. 12 and Early Feb., flights were coming into the US and all over the world potentially carrying carriers. It’s likely that the cause of many colds this winter was the new corona (just like other coronas that circulate in the population causing colds). That would certainly account for the cases of unknow exposure that have been reported. The flu this year has caused thousands of deaths in the US, and while the experts report the death rate for COvid-19 to be higher than that for flu, it is actually impossible to tell what the death rate actually is because people who only have mild symptoms dont seek medical treatment; it could be that the rate is similar to flu or even lower. Until there is a test to show exposure to the virus and widespread testing of the populations the epidemiologists wont really be able to make an accurate assessment.

    Now about the markets, there will no doubt be some ups and downs as companies figure out how they are actually impacted but optimistic me sees light at the end of the roller coaster tunnel 🙂

    by Jean — March 2, 2020

  5. Me? Sold some more. Maybe one of us will be right, but I see no changes since Friday.

    by Peder — March 2, 2020

  6. I’ve been talking to my kids about what a great opportunity this is (income averaging, etc.). For me…not so much, like Jean and others. I have enough in my 401K in cash so that I don’t have to sell anything for about 2 years, but I’m queasy when I look at my mutual funds. I have a diversified portfolio of relatively conservative Morningstar 4-5 star mutual funds. I knew I didn’t have the courage (or brains, depending on how you view it) to try to buy low and sell high in my 401K.

    I just returned from a Caribbean cruise on one of the megaships, and was told that 20% of the passengers had canceled. As a frequent cruiser, I saw a definite increase in everything from hand washing (bottles of the hand sanitizer everywhere, an increase in ship cleaning activities; multiple emails & announcements with travel & other advisories; additional screenings of passengers; reminders about the available medical care). On a Facebook page for our cruise, people from the UK and other countries talked about how their travels had been impacted. There were also the usual people who felt it’s no bigger deal than any flu that can kill old people and people w/damaged immune systems, and that the pandemic thing is just some kind of conspiracy hoax on the world.

    Our family lost three children and their young mother in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and stories had been passed down for generations. But on the positive side, there will be a vaccine in a year — so this crisis does have an end date in sight.

    by Kate — March 3, 2020

  7. The response to the 2008 market drop, by many, was to cash out of stocks. Cash was earning less than 1%. When the market rebounded, the panickers were way behind those who had stayed the course and kept their equities. And when home prices rebounded, those in cash were even farther behind. They didn’t get the benefit of stock reappreciation and the retirement house they wanted a few years earlier was now too expensive. The lessons are there if we choose to heed them. With an incredibly low inventory of homes today, panicking could be even worse for soon-to-retire folks.

    by Larry — March 3, 2020

  8. Jean – “Regarding covid-19, there is a lot of hysteria about this virus . The deaths in the state of Washington notwithstanding, it seems the virus is actually rather mild for most people.”
    That makes them even more likely to not skip work or school and continue to spread infection.
    At any rate, “we’ll see what happens”, as someone is wont to say. Trump seems to think this is just a marketing problem (hammer/nail, I guess). Limbaugh says it’s the common cold. Pence will try to pray it away. Fortunately, there are still a few (too few) competent people working toward a solution. Oh, well, I’ve lived my life. I surely hope it doesn’t burn through Africa like an Australian wildfire. Really too bad the Fed can’t print vaccines instead of greenbacks… 50 basis points won’t get me on a Disney cruise.

    by Peder — March 3, 2020

  9. Here are links to a couple of independent sites re. the virus:

    https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
    Recovered – 94%, Deaths 6%, everyone else is still sick

    Johns Hopkins world map of infection distribution
    https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

    by Peder — March 3, 2020

  10. FWIW, when there is a big down move like last Friday, it’s usually tested again in 3-4 days, and if not then, 3-4 weeks afterward.

    by Peder — March 4, 2020

  11. Source: CDC – https://pbs.twimg.com/media/ESWfIoHX0AEXR6w?format=jpg&name=small

    I suppose the administration can always spin this as “solving the entitlements problem:.

    by Peder — March 5, 2020

  12. Peder, we certainly weren’t “meant” to live this long.

    by RichPB — March 5, 2020

  13. Peder, I think sugar coating the truth will hurt Americans and that is what is happening right now. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/03/who-says-coronavirus-death-rate-is-3point4percent-globally-higher-than-previously-thought.html?__source=sharebar%7Cfacebook&par=sharebar&fbclid=IwAR3rafvVpuhkapafGQFHxQFn8c24X-opmizoxyQtWe2oaSMH2gXMXVkykFY

    by Maimi — March 6, 2020

  14. Just some solid info from John Hopkins.
    https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-disease-2019-vs-the-flu

    An article by someone I respect. He feels we’re between stages 1 and 2.
    https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-02-28/coronavirus-economic-impacts-must-run-through-four-stages

    A link to Der Spiegel. The article is by Nouriel Roubini. They don’t call him “Doctor Doom” for nothing!
    (The initial page is just the “Accept Cookies” thing you see everywhere now. Article is in English)
    https://www.spiegel.de/consent-a-?targetUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.spiegel.de%2Finternational%2Fbusiness%2Fnouriel-roubini-on-coronavirus-this-crisis-will-spill-over-and-result-in-a-disaster-a-e811cf3b-d495-4c52-bf79-d872c8f164ac

    by Peder — March 6, 2020

  15. RichPB – True, we should all have been eaten by wolves in our twenties. But Will Rogers said it best:
    “When I die, I want to die like my grandfather who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.” Or drowning in my own bodily fluids.

    by Peder — March 6, 2020

  16. Oil. Who’d have thought?

    by Peder — March 9, 2020

  17. Yep — greed first followed by power.

    by RichPB — March 10, 2020

  18. RichPB- Spot on!

    by Barb — March 11, 2020

  19. I’m glad that I’m no longer in the Market because specialists are now predicting that this virus will be with us for at least 3 to 6 months. And since we are no longer working we are just staying close to home. and ordering everything to be delivered. Im happy I did all of my travelling when I was younger….

    by Mary11 — March 12, 2020

  20. I was 25% cash. Now I’m 33% cash. And I didn’t have to lift a finger!

    by Peder — March 13, 2020

  21. Peder, the interesting thing about your “automatic” rebalancing of your assets is that even though your cash position increased to 33%, I’ll bet the dollar amount in that position is the same!

    by Clyde — March 13, 2020

  22. Exactly right, Clyde.

    by Peder — March 13, 2020

  23. We heard a great comment from a financial pro about handling the crisis. RIght now bonds are expensive and giving very low rates. By comparison stocks that pay stable dividends offer a much better yield, even if they go down more in the short term. If you need the money, consider selling the bonds and keeping the stocks. For the future, we should all keep enough liquid assets so we don’t have to sell either stocks or bonds to fund one or two years needs, including any big expenses coming up like tuition or paying for a wedding. See https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-money-advice.html

    PS to Peder – Your comment about rebalancing was the most apt and (bittersweet) summary of the situation ever!

    by Admin — March 16, 2020

  24. A lot has changed since these comments were made back in March. In fact, that seems like a couple of years ago! Since that time the market roared back with a few dips on the way. Last week it tanked on Thursday, roared back on Friday.
    We are reading about people who normally spend time betting on sports now moving to online stock trading as their new pastime. Many have invested some or all of their stimulus checks. Online brokerage firms report record numbers of new accounts. Much is being poured into the latest tech stocks, and even Hertz, which has declared bankruptcy, is having an overwhelming level of interest in selling new shares!
    So, our question is, how has your attitude toward investing your retirement portfolio changed since March? Is the market too high, or offering great riches? Did you sell everything, go all in, take some and speculate, or a variation of all of this. Please share what you are up to, it should be interesting to hear.

    by Admin — June 15, 2020

  25. According to data from Refinitiv Lipper, nervous investors have moved money out of stocks and bonds and into assets into money market funds. They are the highest on record, now at about $4.6 trillion. So it looks like more than a few nervous retirees have cashed out of the market and are waiting for some type of crash.

    by Ric — June 16, 2020

  26. My diversified, balanced 401k portfolio has not bounced all the way back from where it was back in January, 2020. Very roughly, my portfolio is still only worth about 94% of that amount today…although better than the 80% it reached at one point. For every move up, there has been a move down. Interest rates are so low, I don’t view cash/money market accounts a great choice either — especially as inflation inches up. I took out my 2020 cash in January, so at this point I’m just holding & watching the market roller coaster (trying not to freak out LOL).

    As a result of the market swings & pandemic, I did cut back on discretionary spending. I also decided to switch from widow’s benefits to my own SS benefit at my next birthday (68) instead of waiting to 70 as originally planned. I’ve reviewed my health care power of attorney, health directives & Will…something that should be current for retirees anyway. I’ve been lucky my kids are still employed. I know some retirees are trying to help out family members who have lost income during the pandemic. which is something that certainly has been an unexpected stretch for many retirement budgets.

    by Kate — June 16, 2020

  27. I didn’t make any changes to my portfolio, and I’ve been retired seven years. The stock portion of my holdings, which is solely in low-cost index funds, lost about 30%, but has come back to almost where it was at the beginning of the pandemic. The earliest I would need to go into my stock funds is at least ten years from now, so that’s why I held steady. But I did call my financial advisor when stocks first started taking a big hit and she and I agreed that the proper course of action at that time was to make no changes. Although the stock market has come back to nearly pre-pandemic levels, I believe, based on observation, research and intuition, that the stock market remains highly volatile and may move significantly lower at times before the end of the year. But since my stocks are for the long term, I’m not selling any in anticipation of any significant lows that may be reached in the next few months. Everyone’s situation is individual to them, so it is important to keep in touch with a qualified fee-for-services financial advisor. It’s worth the relatively low cost.

    by Clyde — June 16, 2020

  28. We’re good, didn’t sell anything and are almost back. Hubs couldn’t resisted doing a little day trading within an IRA when he saw a stock we own drop way lower than made any sense for both the company and actually the industry it’s in and it paid off. That stock only bounced around for a couple weeks and during that time he made enough to cover my online shopping sprees and then some :). We needed some pastime while in house arrest 🙂

    by Jean — June 16, 2020

  29. I stayed the course in the stock market and I am still down from March, but creeping back up. Now, with 20 states seeing spikes and other states opening up despite prevalence of the virus, I think the market is going to sink to a new low by September. So, I plan to move some things around to minimize the loss.

    by Maimi — June 17, 2020

  30. I am 70 and bought my first equity at 19, which was Xerox Corp. I have been a small retail investor for 51 years. It has been a very long time. I believe over the years I have seen it all and it has been one hell of a ride. The incredible euphoria along with the gut wrenching pain, I believe over time it has balanced out to 3 steps forward and 1 step back. Throughout the years I have maintained the course which for me has been very aggressive. I have been riding the FAANG train for some time. And today at the old age of 70, I may be looking at my most aggressive equity portfolio. I have consistently reinvested in both up and down equity markets. Obviously my style of equity investing is not for everyone and carries much more risk. For the foreseeable future I plan to maintain this course of equity investing.

    by Bubbajog — June 17, 2020

  31. At the first downswing for the pandemic, I lost $35K, and held tight. I gained back all but $4K, and then balanced my IRA, reallocating so that I’m now 70% bonds, 30% market. I continue to go up a few hundred dollars each week. For now, I’ll hold where I am. In the future, maybe I’ll get a bit riskier, but right now, no. I’m good.

    by Elaine C. — June 17, 2020

  32. I, too have held the course with a portion of my portfolio, the rest is now in a cash position, a money market account and will be re-invested via dollar cost averaging into ETFs with a stable dividend. I lost some money and gained some, but not all, back. I try not to micro manage my account, but it is difficult. Once the end of July comes and the Feds cash infusion ends, I am concerned that things will decline again. Then there is the second wave possibility. I will continue as things are for now. As a recently turned senior citizen, I realize I may not have all the time in the world to regain all I have lost, so I am cautious.

    by Jennifer Lee — June 18, 2020

  33. Nothing, except not even looking at the market. No use getting upset! Lol! Unless you are trying to get rich, you have to think long term. It’s like the virus itself where panicking doesn’t help anything.

    by Bob — June 18, 2020

  34. Bubbajog, congratulations! I’ve heard of people like you that had the foresight and ability to do what you accomplished, but you are the first I’ve “known”. Hope I might meet you sometime.

    As ones who had not enough of foresight or ability, and who started 15 years later, we are ok at 72. I share Maimi’s concerns, but (unlike others) feel bonds are a desperate gamble and unsatisfactory risk (cash under the mattress). I will also make some changes soon and then again after the big fall. Too soon yet and my current investments are holding ok. Would prefer to be more like you. ?

    by RichPB — June 18, 2020

  35. It is certainly a confusing time. I had some buy orders in place in my retirement account when the market crashed in March. That is when I unexpectedly got emails telling me I had bought those stocks. They went up and I sold most of them a month later (should have held on longer, in hindsight). The beauty of a retirement account is you can sell appreciated stock and not pay capital gains in the short term. Then a few weeks ago I started selling more equities as I couldn’t see how they could keep going up. Yet, some of them have. My plan is to put in buy orders for my favorite stocks at low prices and buy them again. Don’t see how this market is sustainable – but I have been wrong before! Meanwhile I have moved a lot of money out of equities.

    by Rick — June 21, 2020

  36. I am thinking that the markets will go up until the Federal aid ends. Once that happens things may go south again. With unemployment going up and no money it will be very hard on individuals to sustain the economy. Unemployment Insurance bonus’s of $600 plus the state benefit which varies from state to state end on July 25 in many states, some keep it a few days longer to the end of the month. Very interesting times.

    by Jennifer — June 22, 2020

  37. Jennifer, Thank you for that ancient Chinese curse. :<). (Ref the curse, Covid-19 is not Chinese)

    by RichPB — June 23, 2020

  38. oh well…lost almost 100K on paper during these times…you really don’t lose money until you sell…doesn’t affect my standard of living at my age…it means the kids get less when I leave this Earth…I’m sure they can survive !

    by uncle al — June 23, 2020

  39. Dear Members. We had a string of comments that went off the retirement portfolio topic into politics so we removed them. Thank you for staying on topic and avoiding the third rail of politics.

    by Admin — June 25, 2020

  40. The following is a COP OUT, contrary to what many people desire to comment about :

    “Dear Members. We had a string of comments that went off the retirement portfolio topic into politics so we removed them. Thank you for staying on topic and avoiding the third rail of politics.
    by Admin — June 25, 2020”.

    I MYSELF HAD A COMMENT DELETED, WHICH WAS NOT POLITICAL BUT MAY BE DEEMED FUNNY…it appears your censors have gotten out of hand and joined the ranks of Facebook, Twiiter, Google, etc ! If it is not vulgar, inflammatory, racist, dangerous, or libelous, I believe all comments are fair game !

    by uncle al — June 25, 2020

  41. I trust the administrators to make reasonable decisions about what comments here are reasonable and appropriate for publication. There has to be at least some monitoring or the comments would veer off base and into areas the site wasn’t designed for. Just because any person “desires to comment about” something doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be allowed. Thanks, administrators, for what seem to be appropriate decisions on what is posted finding our too retirement places.

    by Clyde — June 26, 2020

  42. It’s easy for lighthearted conversation to devolve into a web-war, perhaps even without realizing it. I’m glad they jump in to stop the brush fires, even though I’ve been doused myself.

    by Daryl — June 26, 2020

  43. I am starting to feel very nervous about any financial recovery, but not sure what to do next. With the prospect of returning to any employment looking very dim due to health risks, my financial plans are out the window, once again. I was one of those people who planned and saved for retirement, but a sudden divorce late in life leaving me alone with a young child , threw all that out the window. So, I worked round the clock, and by the time she finished college, I turned 62 and finally thought I could slow down. This pandemic has really changed my retirement situation. I had found a “retirement” job in a school that I loved and thought I would keep for at least 5 years. I was thrilled. This pandemic is not going away. Now what? I suspect I am not alone feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under me again.

    by Maimi — June 27, 2020

  44. I’ve moved to preservation mode. I don’t really like election years. I don’t like the peaks and valleys generated by the news cycle. I have enough and I think I’ll stay in preservation mode. Is there any good news on the horizon – I guess the vaccine but so many companies will be decimated by then it is still scary. When the GDP, unemployment, debt, bankruptcies continue to roll out over the next 12 months, I am not optimistic. I stayed the course in the great recession but I don’t think we have the leadership for a pandemic and economic collapse in place and I’m older!

    by ljtucson — June 27, 2020

  45. I moved a lot of money out of my more aggressive funds when the market bounced up again, felt I was given a second chance after the first big drop caught me off guard when they kept saying this would all be over by April. (Or just say I rebalanced my portfolio, and act like I know something…) Anyway, the peace of mind it has given me is priceless.

    by Daryl — June 27, 2020

  46. Just a thought, but since the government has said no IRA RMDs must be taken this year, perhaps it would be a good year to take capital gains instead. Taxes may never be lower. With $26T in national debt and a $3T budget deficit for this year alone, these debts will need to be paid. Default or inflate. Sad but true. Really, though, inflation is just default on a much slower scale, sometimes glacial, other times not.

    by Peder — June 28, 2020

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