MythTip: Recession Part I — In or Out?

What is a Recession?

A recession is technically defined as two or more consecutive quarters of declining GDP in an economy. GDP is a measure of all income for the economy. For most people, though, a recession can be defined more easily. It is any time when jobs are scarce, companies are failing, stocks are plummeting, and things are generally not-so-hot in the economy. When people hear the word recession, they tend to feel pangs of fear and uncertainty. Will their job be cut? Will their savings hit the tank? Will they lose their home? These are valid fears. And, while there is not much to be done about the potential for job losses and your home’s safety depends upon your past financial behavior there are ways that you can protect your investments when the market is down. There even ways to improve your portfolio over the long run. This post is the first of a short series about how to deal with a recession. This post will focus on what you can do to protect your funds that are held in stocks.

MythTip 1: Avoid the Problem

Just get out before the market crashes. This one seems obvious, but can be very difficult to implement because no one really know exactly when the market will take a dive. It is nevertheless the easiest way to deal with a down market. If you suspect the market could be going down for the count, then get out while your stock values are still high.

Here is a very useful tip for determining when to get out of the market and when to get in. The Federal Reserve, among other things, determines what the base interest rate for the economy is going to be. Theoretically, the members of the Federal Reserve Board should be among the best economists in the country, and have access to the most information pertaining to the economy. When the Fed reduces the base interest rate three times in a row, it is a signal that they expect troubled times ahead and you should get out of the market. Just look at what they did for interest rates recently. Since June of 2006, the Fed has lowered interest rates 10 consecutive times in efforts to curtail the emerging recession. If you had pulled your money out of the market and into a cash account after the third consecutive interest rate drop on October 31, 2007, you would have pulled out when the Dow had a value of 13,930 and avoided the plunge to 8,577 (the closing value of the Dow on October 15, 2008). You would have dodged a loss of value of 38%. When do you get back in? When the Fed raises interest rates 3 consecutive times. This strategy is not the most precise, but it is the easiest to understand and implement, and it works. For more information on the Fed and it’s functions, read this post.

MythTip 2: Pick Your Circumstance

I know what you’re thinking right now. “That was no help, my accounts are already down!” Right? For most people, this is the case. It is too late already in this particular recession to pull out. It just is. But that does not mean that you should not pull out. It also does not mean that you should stay in the market. All it means is that you have to now decide from the following options which best suits your circumstances.

Close your eyes and keep your faith

This strategy is primarily for people that have at least 15 years before they plan on cashing in their accounts. If you fit into this group, then here is what you do. You keep investing. Keep putting money into the market. If you have a well diversified portfolio, then your accounts will gain their value back and you will not want to miss out on investing when the market is in its current condition. What’s that you say? The market is still struggling? Why should you put money into it only to have a fair chance of it going down in value again? The answer is so very simple, you may be astonished. The cardinal rule of investing is this: Buy low, sell high. Simple, right? It is simple. But it can be very hard, and it requires courage and faith in the economy. Right now, stocks are CHEAP. VERY cheap. Many stocks are at 50% or less of the value they held only a year ago. Can you say, “Blue light special on aisle 4″? For the same amount of money, you can get almost twice as many stocks as you could have a year ago. What does that mean? It means that if you buy these half-off stocks, then when they rise again to more normal levels, you get to keep the increase in value.

It will be hard to watch your accounts continue to dwindle. You may wonder why you are putting money into something that is losing value. In order to help you sleep at night, I suggest not looking at your balances each month/quarter, and instead focusing your attention on the future. You are investing for the long-term. Don’t let the bumps and dips of the present sway you from your ultimate goal. If you continue to invest even when the market is down, you WILL get the end result you want. Remember that a loss in the stock market is only a loss when it is realized. To realize a loss means that you sold something for less than you paid for it. If you hold the stocks that are low in value, your account value will look low on paper, but you will not have actually lost any money at all! Think of it this way: suppose you bought a Michael Jordan rookie card for $200. The next year, you want to sell your card, but find that it can only be sold for $100. You might be upset and think you have lost $100. However, you do not need to sell your card, so you decide to hold on to it for a while longer. In fact, you decide that since cards are so cheap right now, you also want to get a Magic Johnson rookie card for $100. Now you have two rookie cards that you paid $300 total for. The next year, you find that both of your cards have regained their value and are now worth $200 each. You sell them and gleefully pocket $100. Did you lose money when your MJ card was low in value? Nope. If you have sold the card for $100, then you would have lost money, but since you held the card until it rose in value again, you didn’t actually lose any money at all. And, since you bought the Magic Johnson card when it was cheap, you actually managed to profit from the slump in basketball card values! The same holds for stocks. If you sell them after a market crash, then you lose money. If you hold the stocks until they return to their original value, then you have lost nothing. And if you buy stocks when they are low and hold them until they are high, then you have made money. For more information on the benefits of continuing your investments, read my post on dollar-cost averaging.

Please note: this strategy is effective ONLY for people who have many years of investing ahead of them. People who need their funds in 5 or 10 years may not be able to afford to wait for the market to rebound. Do not fear, the market will rebound. If you want/need your investment money that soon, they you probably should not use this strategy, because you may lose more money before you begin gaining. Those with longer investment horizons can afford those losses but you cannot. For you, a more conservative approach is in order.

Play it Safe

This strategy is for those who need to preserve the value of their accounts now because they need the money soon. It also is a good strategy for people who simply cannot bear to watch their account values drop any further. This strategy is a little simpler to understand. Just pull your money out of the market. That simple.

The problem is, where do you put it? I suggest using a cash account. What is a cash account? It is any account with a guaranteed positive return. This includes: savings accounts, checking accounts, CD’s, some money market mutual funds, and a plethora of other accounts that are essentially the same but have dozens of unique names. Most brokerages actually have a high-yield money market account that they will put your money into whenever you pull it out of stocks. The yields on these are fairly competitive with any other high-yield savings account you might find at your local bank. While the returns are low (typically 2-5%), they are MUCH better than sustaining losses. By pulling out, you can maintain the value that you have without risk of losing any more.

Want to take advantage of the low price of stocks? Don’t worry, if you follow this strategy, you still have a chance of getting the big returns. You can keep making your regular deposits into your investment account (those funds will simply be added to the cash account). When the stock market looks to be picking up, you simply get back into the market. But be careful. Sometimes the market seems to recover, only to drop again a week later. To be safe, do not get back into the market until the Fed raises interest rates at least twice in a row. Three times to be extra safe. While you probably will miss the very best days to be in the market that the people who stay in the market get to cash in on, you can still capture much of the gain in value that the market experiences as it surges out of recession.

Posted on 15 Oct 2008