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3 Ways to Cope During Tough Markets

Christine Benz
Jeremy Glaser

Jeremy Glaser: For Morningstar I'm Jeremy Glaser. 2019 may be young but we're already seeing plenty of volatility. I'm here with Christine Benz she's our director of personal finance. We're going to talk about some coping mechanisms that investors can use to get through these tough times. Christine, thanks for joining me.

Christine Benz: Jeremy, it's great to be here.

Glaser: So it's New Years Resolution season, but recently we've been talking about instead of make a definitive resolution, having more of a, do more, do less framework. Could you talk about what that is and why you think that could be powerful.

Benz: I didn't invent this concept but I've just been seeing it recently. And the basic idea is that resolutions can be a little bit counter productive sometimes, especially if you mess up in your first couple of days of the New Year. You might think, forget about it. I'm not going to proceed. 

The idea of this do more, do less concept is that you'll do more of things that overall get you going in the right direction and do fewer of the things that are counter productive. And so you'll kind of incrementally get yourself moving in a better direction and you don't have to be perfect every day and that's one reason why I really like the concept.

Glaser: Well let's look at this in the context of a plummeting markets at times. What's something that investors could do more of when they see these scary headlines?

Benz: One thing I think can be super helpful is just to make sure that your portfolio checkups are on a preset schedule. For individual investors managing their portfolios or maybe managing with the help of an advisor, I think maybe an annual, semi-annual, quarterly, monthly check up at most is just fine. Saying that you will only check up on your portfolio at a preset time, can help serve as a check against getting too involved in the day to day market gyrations.

Glaser: That brings us to the do less piece of that, which is that you don't necessarily need to be totally plugged into what any given market day looks like.

Benz: Right. Absolutely not. It's not self serving for us on morningstar.com. We'd love for you to be here all the time. I was recently talking to a older relative who was telling me that she gets up every morning at four a.m and turns on CNBC and starts watching and wants to see what's going on with the market futures and gosh, that worries me because that gives me the sense that she is too involved in day to day market gyrations that ultimately she can't control. For most investors, I do think that restricting themselves to a set schedule for checking up on their portfolios is a better way to go.

Glaser: You think having written policy statements is something that all of us could do more of?

Benz: Absolutely. Every investor should have what I call or what investment experts call an investment policy statement where you're laying out your asset allocation plan. You're laying out your savings rate if you're in accumulation mode. If people are getting close to retirement or in retirement, I think it's helpful to augment that with what I call a retirement policy statement. We've got templates for both on morningstar.com. The basic idea that you're creating a blueprint for your plan. If it's the retirement policy statement you have, your asset allocation and how it might change during retirement. You have your withdrawal rate, you have your social security start date and a host of other factors.

I do think that having these policy statements can really help insulate you from some of the market volatility that we've been experiencing recently. You can use that as a check to see if your plan is on track. If you do see that you need to make changes, you can course correct from there.

Glaser: But you shouldn't be rigid when it comes to using these.

Benz: No. I don't think so. One of our readers sent me his policy statement a few years ago. It was superbly done. It was institutional quality. I think there's a risk of getting a policy statement that's a little bit too finely tuned. For example, you want to set bands around, say your asset allocation. You don't want to have to tweak your asset allocation if you're equity allocation bumps, say two percentage points above your target. You'd want to give yourself a little bit of a band for your asset allocation.

Same goes for your withdrawal rate. In retirement, inevitable there will be years when you [spend] more. There will be years when you [spend] less. You want to give yourself a little bit of wiggle room. Write that policy statement so you are not having to doggedly adhere to it and spend too much time with it.

Glaser: The final thing to do more is to focus on the things that you can control, not the market.

Benz: That's right. If you are still in accumulation mode, you want to focus on your savings rate. One of the best ways to take control, psychologically certainly, in a difficult market is to make sure that you are saving as much as you possibly can. I think we have all felt a little bit of the wealth effect over the past several years as we've seen our portfolios grow larger. As we begin to see our portfolios shrink a little bit, see if you can't make up the difference with some increase savings.

Managing your portfolio costs is another way to take control. Look at your total all in costs, your trading costs, how much you're paying for mutual funds or ETF's. Managing tax costs is another thing that I think falls firmly within our sphere of control as investors.

Another great way to at least mentally clear the clutter and maybe physically clear the clutter is to make sure that you are attending to your paperwork and you're not saving too much financial paperwork. Those are all good, tangible take control strategies, things that can help you take some psychological control in a difficult market.

Glaser: The final thing to do less of is maybe easier said than done. But it is to try to worry less and not worry about those things that are out of your control.

Benz: I won't be the first person to say this. But I do think that it can make sense to just get away from your financial life, get away from your portfolio, take a walk, play with your kids or grandkids. Whatever you like to do that helps get your mind off the thing that's worrying you. That's a great strategy and a great way to cope in volatile markets.

Glaser: Christine, thank you.

Benz: Thank you Jeremy.

Glaser: For Morningstar, I'm Jeremy Glaser. Thanks for watching.