3 Guidelines to go by in a Downturn

No doubt about it, we've been fortunate to experience generally rising markets for more than a decade now. So it's all the more startling when major turbulence occurs. While there's no way of knowing a downturn's duration, the 3 guidelines below can help you avoid costly mistakes when the markets seem to turn against you.

1. Have a plan

Whether you're saving for your retirement or a loved one's education, having a plan can help your portfolio stay on track in periods of market volatility. Without a plan, you're more vulnerable to your emotions, especially during a market drop. You may give in to temptations like chasing performance, timing the market, or impulsively reacting to market "noise"—all in an effort to protect your portfolio by resorting to a quick fix.

Creating an investment plan is easier than you may think. You'll get a good start by answering a few key questions about your risk tolerance, goals, and limitations.

Looking for help with your college savings, but feel you don't have the time, inclination, or know-how to map and manage a plan? If you choose to invest in a 529 plan and select an age- based option, your savings will get exposure to all the markets, and the investment management will be taken care of for you. This includes adjustments to your portfolio's asset allocation to reduce its equity risk as your beneficiary nears college age—when you'll need to access the funds.

2. Don't fixate on "losses"

OK, so let's say you have a plan, and your portfolio is balanced and diversified across asset classes but its value still dropped significantly in a market decline. There's no cause for panic. Stock downturns are normal, and most investors will endure several of them.

Case in point: Between 1980 and 2019 there were 8 bear markets in stocks (declines of 20% or more, lasting at least 2 months) and 13 corrections (declines of at least 10%).*

Still stressed? It may be time to reconsider the amount of risk in your portfolio. As shown in the chart below, stock-heavy portfolios have historically delivered higher returns, but capturing them has required greater tolerance for wide price swings.


Vanguard Graph showing Range of calendar-year returns from 1926-2019

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.

If you choose 1 of the 3 NY 529 age-based investment options (Conservative, Moderate, or Aggressive), you'll get a portfolio designed specifically to help you reduce your investing risk. These options reduce the stock exposure in your portfolio as your child grows older and closer to college age, so your risk is dialed back automatically—an especially calming factor as tuition bills come due.

3. Resist rash actions

In times of falling asset prices, some investors overreact by selling riskier assets and moving to government securities or cash equivalents. Or they may embrace what's familiar—perhaps moving from international to domestic markets, in a display of "home bias."

It does sometimes take a market shock to alert investors to the risk in their allocations. For example, you may let your portfolio drift in rising markets, not realizing that you're taking on more and more risk over time. But it's risky to sell assets amid market volatility in the belief that you'll know when to move your money back to those assets. That's called market- timing, and the chart below shows one reason why it's a bad idea. This is especially important in 529 portfolios, as account owners are limited to 2 investment exchanges a year. (New purchases and automatic shifts along the glide path don't count toward this limit.)

The futility of timing the stock market.

Its best and worst days often happen close together.


Vanguard Graph showing S&P 500 Index daily returns, 1979 through 2019

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.

Again, college savers who choose to invest in a 529 plan age-based option have an advantage because their savings automatically move through a series of portfolios that become more conservative over time. You don't have to make any changes unless you want to. A 529 plan is the only account type that offers the convenience of age-based options for college savings.

As you think about your savings goals, consider trying to follow the 3 strategies above. Having an allocation plan, and sticking to it, can help you avoid an emotional reaction to uncertain markets. To gauge your possible response to market ups and downs, learn more about the type of investor you are.

*Vanguard calculations, based on the performance of the MSCI World Index from January 1, 1980, through December 31, 1987, and the MSCI AC World Index thereafter. Both indexes are denominated in U.S. dollars. Our count of corrections excludes those that turned into bear markets. We count corrections that occur after a bear market has recovered from its trough, even if stock prices haven't yet reached their previous peak.