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The Value of Financial Advice During Volatile Markets

Working with an advisor can help you prepare for down markets—and stay grounded when they come

By Kerry Hannon

MY HUSBAND AND I ARE DILIGENT SAVERS and planners. Yet during the latest bout of volatility this spring, I felt out of control. I wondered: Would we still be able to meet all of our financial goals? Should we have let our retirement portfolios ride so high on equities last year?  What could we do now?

And then the phone rang. It was our financial advisor. She didn’t offer glib optimism. Instead, she calmly reminded us that we’d taken some of our retirement funds out of equities back in the fall and that we had plenty of cash on hand to help buffer the downturn. In my anxiety, I’d forgotten that. She then suggested some small steps we might take to rebalance and help protect our accounts moving forward and even mentioned some investments we might consider making while the markets were down.

“Difficult markets often lead to emotional decisions that might not be in your financial best interest. That’s human nature.”—Marci McGregor, senior investment strategist with the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

As someone who writes about money for a living, I’m well aware that, historically, markets have bounced back from downturns. And yet, when markets get unpredictable, I find myself doubting that basic investing tenet. I’m not alone. “Difficult markets often lead to emotional decisions that might not be in your financial best interest,” says Marci McGregor, a senior investment strategist with the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. “That’s human nature.”

An Informed and Empathetic Sounding Board
It’s during times like these that an advisor’s calm and informed guidance can be most helpful. An advisor can help you create a long-term strategy for pursuing your goals—one that aligns with your risk tolerance, liquidity needs and time horizons and that includes diversification so that your losses in a downturn might be minimized. You’ll still have questions—as I did—when volatility hits. But your advisor should be able to provide useful historical perspective and timely advice and guidance. Below are a few questions that may be top of mind for you the next time the markets drop, plus some insights on how working with an advisor could benefit you, depending on where you are on your road to retirement.

How should I handle market drops?  Your advisor could reassure you that you have years ahead to recover from any losses in the accounts you’ve created for retirement and other long-term goals. But he or she should also review your short-term goals and discuss whether any adjustments need to be made to help keep you on track. They should walk you through all of your choices, as well as the fees and expenses involved, taking into consideration current market conditions and how much time you have to pursue those goals—things like saving for your children’s college, purchasing a home or covering caregiving costs for your parents. And they should help you consider whether you need to rebalance your investments to align more closely with your original asset allocation. If as a result of the volatility you realize that you’re not as comfortable with risk as you thought you were, your advisor can work with you to make adjustments that may help to further reduce the losses you might be experiencing. “That’s what this relationship is there for,” says McGregor.

Are there opportunities for me to grow my assets? One of the biggest opportunities may come from maintaining your equity positions. Abandoning equities when the markets are down puts you at risk of missing a recovery, says McGregor. In addition to giving you that important historical perspective, your advisor will have access to the latest market research and may suggest new investment choices that may be in your best interest and that take advantage of lower stock prices.

An advisor can help you create a long-term strategy for pursuing your goals—one that includes diversification so that your losses in a downturn might be minimized.

Should I adjust my asset allocation? If you’re close to retirement, you may be tempted to get out of stocks. “But a too-conservative portfolio can be risky, too,” says McGregor. An advisor can show you how adjusting your asset allocation could affect your portfolio over time and help you to plan for upcoming expenses, such as the rising cost of health care. “In some cases, as you approach retirement, you may even want to increase risk on a calculated basis,” says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. You might consider shifting some of your fixed income to equities, for instance, if fixed income is offering low yields, as well as looking at dividend-paying investments.1

Will I need to make some tradeoffs? Depending on the extent of the volatility and its impact on your portfolio, you may have to consider working a little longer or putting off another goal, acknowledges Ben Storey, director of Retirement Thought Leadership at Bank of America.  “But an advisor can help you find other ways to adjust. You might talk about putting off the purchase of a second home, for instance, so that you can still retire when you want to.”

Do I have enough cash on hand? Plummeting markets can be especially nerve-wracking if you’re relying on funds from your retirement accounts to cover living expenses. “Your advisor can help you revisit your budget to see which non-necessities you can trim to free up income,” Storey says. If you do need more cash, he or she might suggest working with a bank to consider low-cost borrowing options so that you don’t have to withdraw assets in a down market.

How can I protect my savings? In addition to working with you to evaluate and potentially adjust your asset allocation to help minimize losses and provide a guaranteed income stream, your advisor can keep you up to date on rule changes. For instance, the 2019 SECURE Act delays the age at which people must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from an IRA or workplace retirement plan account to age 72, from 70½. And the 2020 CARES Act lifts the requirement for taking RMDs altogether for this year. Skipping the RMD will let you keep your retirement funds invested and tax-sheltered, and help you avoid selling investments when their value has declined, if that’s in your best interest.

Preparing for the Next Downturn
As concerned as my husband and I were about our finances during the latest bout of volatility, we felt reassured when our advisor showed us we were prepared to weather this downturn. But that was only true because of the smart decisions we’d made together with our advisor over the years as we established, reviewed and adjusted our investments to match our changing needs and life circumstances. It’s a process we plan to continue so that we can be ready when the next downturn comes.


Kerry Hannon is the author of numerous best-selling personal finance and retirement books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, AARP Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, among many other publications.

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1Corporations may determine to not pay dividends based on market circumstances

Information is as of 04/30/2020

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and are subject to change without notice.

The Chief Investment Office, which provides investment strategies, due diligence, portfolio construction guidance and wealth management solutions for Global Wealth & Investment Management ("GWIM") clients, is part of the Investment Solutions Group (“ISG”) of GWIM, a division of Bank of America Corporation (“BofA Corp.”).

Bank of America is a marketing name for the Retirement Services business of BofA Corp.

Bank of America, Merrill, their affiliates, and advisors do not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. Clients should consult their legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.

Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Asset allocation, diversification and rebalancing do not ensure a profit or protect against loss in declining markets.

Equity securities are subject to stock market fluctuations that occur in response to economic and business developments.

Investing in fixed-income securities may involve certain risks, including the credit quality of individual issuers, possible prepayments, market or economic developments and yields and share price fluctuations due to changes in interest rates. When interest rates go up, bond prices typically drop, and vice versa.

This material does not take into account a client’s particular investment objectives, financial situations, or needs and is not intended as a recommendation, offer, or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security or investment strategy. Merrill offers a broad range of brokerage, investment advisory (including financial planning) and other services. There are important differences between brokerage and investment advisory services, including the type of advice and assistance provided, the fees charged, and the rights and obligations of the parties. It is important to understand the differences, particularly when determining which service or services to select. For more information about these services and their differences, speak with your Merrill Lynch Wealth Management Advisor.

Kerry Hannon is not affiliated with Bank of America Corporation.

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