What now? Resist urge to flee or freeze
That's why conservative financial planners often keep only about 20 percent of a retiree's money in the stock market once they are in their 70s. Others might divide money up more like 50:50 in stocks and bonds, but make sure retirees have five years of living expenses in cash (money market mutual funds, high yield savings accounts, or CDs) so they don't have to sell stocks when it's a bad time to sell.
Are you saving for retirement?
If you are many years from retirement, you will recover from this downturn in time. Cycles are painful, but natural, in the stock market.
Throughout history it has been rare for the stock market to remain down for more than five years. It has never happened for 15 years. So if you are years away from retiring, you are likely to enjoy the surge in the stock market that eventually comes after every bear market.
Although stocks do drop more than 20 percent during bear markets, the good times have carried the stocks higher. If you had invested $1 in the stock market in 1926, you would have gone through the Great Depression, and several bear markets, and have about $2,700 today. In the safer alternative -- bonds -- you would have about $70.
Combine stocks and bonds to make money safer
When you combine stocks and bonds you give your money a chance to recover from bear markets, and you also insulate it somewhat during the worst periods. Think of bonds as shock absorbers.
Research by Ibbotson Associates of Chicago makes it clear. If you had 100 percent of your money in stocks, you would have lost 12.4 percent a year on average during the worst five years in stock market history. But with 70 percent in stocks and 30 percent in bonds, you would have lost just 6.3 percent a year. If you divided your investments 50:50, the loss would be just 2.7 percent.
Financial planners often suggest that people in their 30s and 40s select a 70:30 combination. On the verge of retirement, they might go to 50:50.
Don't rely on last year's winners
If you looked at your investments last year, you might think you are still in winners.
Then, small cap stock funds and emerging market stock funds were soaring. That's not true now. Small caps, or small companies, are vulnerable at times like this. While large companies can cut fat to weather recessions, smaller companies can't.
So don't dump all your small caps, but make sure you aren't holding a super-sized portion. Also make sure you didn't load up on emerging market funds. Instead, count on a diversified international fund to give you some exposure to developing areas of the world, but not an overdose.
Consider the moderate approach
Here's an example of how you might divide your money up in a moderate portfolio of mutual funds if you can convince yourself to stick with stocks for the long term, but are afraid to be too exposed now.
Bonds - 40 percent
Large cap stock funds - 39 percent
Mid cap stock funds - 6 percent
Small cap stock funds - 6 percent
International stock funds - 9 percent
If you find yourself in a diversified portfolio and are scared, consider ratcheting back by five or 10 percent rather than fleeing altogether.