An 8-Step Plan to Tackle a Bear Market

A bear market is the perfect time to look under the hood of your portfolio and financial plan

Tom Lauricella 20 May, 2022 | 10:58PM
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U.S. stocks briefly dipped their toes into bear market territory on Friday, setting a new milestone in the equities slump of 2022. While the S&P 500 rebounded before the end of trading, it's time to think about how to navigate an environment where stocks clearly don't just go up. 

A common piece of advice for investors during a big selloff in the stock market is to hang tight and not panic. That’s often misunderstood to mean ``close your eyes and ignore what’s happening in your portfolio.''

Right now, with stocks flirting with a bear market and many bond strategies also posting high-single-digit losses, the instinct to put your head in the sand may be understandable.

While you don’t want to respond with knee-jerk reactions to the down market in stocks or losses in your bond funds, it’s also a time to take a close look under the hood of your portfolio and see how your plan matches up to what you expected and whether you’re still on track to meet your goals.

Where to start? Marta Norton, chief investment officer for the Americas at Morningstar Investment Management, offers these eight steps for investors to consider as we weather these volatile markets:

1. How Robust Is Your Portfolio?

One thing that we give a lot of thought to is the idea of robustness. This is related to diversification, but it's not quite the same thing. It's thinking about your portfolio and the different environments that you can be in: high economic growth, low growth, high inflation, and low inflation.

If your entire portfolio depends on high growth and low inflation, then you don't have a robust portfolio.

Maybe you're buying something that is modestly cheap but would actually do really well in a particular environment. So you don't know how the market or the economy is going to play out. You can have a best guess, and you might be close or sometimes you might be off other times.

So it makes sense to think about those different ranges of environments and your portfolioeven within a single asset class. Even within equities you can ask yourself, "Which of these sectors is going to benefit in which environment?"

For example, if we enter into a recession, financials are not a great place to be. If we don't hit a recession and rates are much higher, then there is something of a tailwind for financials. 

If we have a recession, maybe energy doesn't do so well. But if you have inflation, maybe energy does do well. 

So you have all those these different considerations for different areas of the market and you need to think that through.

2. Look for Buying Opportunities 

The Warren Buffett maxim should apply: Be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy.

As a general rule, if you care about the price that you're paying for things and the market is selling off hardnot just a modest decline here and there, but it's a significant selloffthen all else being equal, that is a buying opportunity.

When it comes to stocks, especially to the extent that the underlying assets of a company are not impaired, you're looking at healthy companies, healthy debt. So now that the prices are a lot better that is a good thing for long-term returns.

When we start to see a market selloff like this, we are always going to start to get interested and thinking about how to take advantage of the opportunity instead of just being a victim of it.

I think this is a narrative that people understand well, but whether they actually behave that way is a different thing.

3. Buy the Dip vs. Having a Plan

It’s important to distinguish from the mantra or hashtag that seems to float around that says “buy the dip.'' There's almost this sense of a trampoline, like the market is going to fall hard and it's going to be an immediate bounceback. It’s an instant gratification thing.

And I want to caution that, if it is a meaningful selloff, there can be more meaningful selloffs.

When we start to get interested in a market selloff, we don't take everything that we could put in the market and do it right away. We do this in a much more dollar-cost-averaging way, where we adjust and put together a buying plan. If the market’s down X amount I'll do this, the market's down X plus this amount I'll do that.

It’s a precommitment that can help counter behavioral bias, because, as the market sells off more and more, you start to wonder what the market is seeing that I don't. So having this precommitment in this type of environment can be a powerful way to do the right thing, even when it feels really bad.

4. Don’t Buy Through the Rearview Mirror

Down markets don't all look the same, and up markets don’t all look the same.

Stocks that have been favored by the market won't be favorites anymore, and so you don't necessarily want to assume that this is just a dip and then you get back in, and it's going to be exactly the way it used to be.

5. Check Your Expectations

This is not a recession yet, and this isn't a global financial crisis. This is a shifting of the market environment, where we're going from a benign inflationary environment to an inflationary environment, and we're going from an accommodative monetary policy to a less accommodative monetary policy.

To the extent to which it's been such accommodative policy and a positive economic environment that have bolstered security prices, then the next ten years may not be as friendly for returns as the last ten. Recalibrating expectations is important.

6. Bonds Still Have Value

It's difficult to watch your bonds lose meaningful amounts of money at the same time as your stocks. I don't know if investors fully expected it, even though you knew the math that when rates start to rise, bonds are going to sell off.

As equities and bonds sell off at the same time, it can become hard to see the value of a multi-asset portfolio.

From our vantage point, there still is a value to bonds. If we were to hit a recession there's a chance that Treasuries would be a safe haven, so they still have a role in that type of environment.

Bonds are still not dropping in every instance to the same magnitude as stocks. And, as they are selling off and their yields start to rise, they get more attractive.

7. Consider Moving Beyond Stocks and Bonds

It’s important to know that this type of market environment—the idea that bonds and stocks can be selling off at the same timeis within the realm of possibility. I just think we haven't seen it for so long that people got caught off guard.

So the other thing to consider is that stocks and bonds don't have to be the only thing that you own. I'm not talking about commodities or real estate. I'm talking about alternatives in the sense of hedge-fund-like strategies that don't use leverage and have steadier return profiles. They offer balance to your portfolio without the risk that some parts of fixed-income markets face.

You want more consistent, steady performance that’s not driven by the same factors driving fixed income or equities.

Here are some ideas of what to buy beyond stocks and bonds.

8. You Don’t Have to Be Right

To have a portfolio that can meet a financial goal at the end of your time horizon, you don't have to be able to predict where the whole economy goes. You don't have to be a savant. You do have to be willing to say "I could be wrong about this. What could I own that is reasonably priced that could offset that concern?"

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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Tom Lauricella  is Editor of Morningstar Direct

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