In the days ahead, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be described in economic terms as a Black Swan. This phrase is used to describe an event that: 1) was unpredictable; 2) causes severe and widespread consequences; and 3) in hindsight was determined to be wholly predictable.
What will be interesting going forward is how much the virus, and its impact on the economy and financial markets, ultimately affects individual portfolios. It’s worth noting that many economists spent the whole of 2019 cautioning that a recession and market correction was imminent. To what extent investors took heed and repositioned their portfolios is yet to be seen.
As predicted, the Federal Reserve might have already exhausted the tools it had available to prevent a further watershed in the markets. Initially, the central bank dropped the federal funds rate to zero and funneled money into the economy. In more recent weeks, its monetary policies have included aggressive purchasing of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, extending swap lines to foreign central banks, and propping up short-term corporate borrowing and money market mutual funds to help support lending to state and local governments. At first, these efforts appeared to do little to diminish the stock market slide, but the end of March saw a three-day rally with the Dow Jones Industrial Average seeing its biggest three-day jump since 1931.
On the fiscal policy side, Congress is rushing to pass monetary aid as well as stimulus and recovery funds for both individuals and businesses. However, these actions can do little to stop an airborne virus that continues to shutter jobs and businesses and threaten the viability of the country’s health care system and everyday life as we know it.
When it comes to your own financial risk, let’s look at first things first. For many investors, an initial reaction might be to panic sell holdings before portfolios drop any further. Unless your timeline for needing funds has accelerated, selling now is not generally advisable. What is important to bear in mind is that markets tend to recover quickly after the most significant market declines, so if you’re not invested during the recovery, any paper losses you’re experiencing now will be permanent.
It is worth taking a good look at your holdings to get an idea of what to expect. For example, companies that rely on global supply chains and offshore manufacturing will likely experience the most detrimental short-term impact from the pandemic. This means disruptions in technology, retail, auto manufacturing, travel and tourism, global delivery and oil prices.
On the other hand, the health care industry will likely see tons more investment and demand while the so-called FAANG stocks (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) are poised for rampant growth – given the degree to which people are stuck at home using online and delivery services.
Bear in mind that if you make any changes to your portfolio in reaction to market volatility, take into consideration your long-term goals and financial security. The following are a few strategies to consider that could position your portfolio for subsequent growth – assuming you maintain a long-term perspective.
- Use either spare cash, asset allocation rebalancing opportunities or automatic investment contributions to bargain shop for stocks with a strong track record that are likely to recover but are well-priced right now.
- Now might be a good time to convert (tax-deferred) retirement account assets into a Roth IRA. By doing so now, when prices are at their lows, you’ll owe less tax at the time of the conversion – which you won’t have to pay until next year’s tax season. By that time, the market may have recovered, positioning your Roth for greater potential for tax-free growth and tax-free income during retirement.
- Consider using a portion of your assets to pay a lump sum premium for an annuity contract in order to transfer market risk from your portfolio to an insurance company. An annuity is designed to provide insurer-guaranteed income during your retirement, so you can feel a bit better about maintaining an equity allocation during this volatile time until the rest of your portfolio recovers.
The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus is likely to continue to drive investor uncertainty over the short term. The long term, however, is another matter. Just like the saying, “What goes up, must come down,” history has shown that when it comes to the stock market, what goes down inevitably goes back up. The question is just how long that will take. For now, this is one of those times when it’s handy to have a three-to six-month emergency cash fund available to cover expenses.