5 Tips to Protect your 401(k) From A Future Stock Market Crash

A stock market crash is defined as a sudden dramatic decline in stock prices across the market. The U.S. documented stock market crashes as early as the 18th century in March 1792. The most recent one in the country happened in March 2020. Other prominent crashes include the market crash of 1929, which resulted in the Great Depression, the crash of 1987, the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the dot-com crash in 2000, the market crash of 2008, and the crash of 2018.

A stock market crash can cripple the economy and lead to significant losses for investors. Fluctuations in the market can impact retirement plans like the 401(k). A prolonged bear market can lower the value of your retirement nest egg, and a bull market can give you more money in retirement, offering you a financially comfortable life.

A financial advisor can help you choose the best 401(k) investments based on your financial goals and the market’s ups and downs. The article discusses tips to safeguard your plan from a future stock market crash. 

What happens when the stock market crashes?

When stock prices start declining across sectors, several companies get affected. The stock prices go down as more investors begin selling their stocks rather than buying them. The market value of your investments drops, and fear and uncertainty are high among investors, which may lead to panic selling. A stock market crash also affects economic activity. With falling prices, consumer confidence lowers, and people spend less. This slows down business activity and sales. As a result, businesses start to cut back on their workforce to curtail their cash outflows. This leads to job losses, further impacting people’s purchasing power and spending habits.

The government may step in to prevent a further decline in the market by cutting interest rates, providing financial support to businesses and individuals, or implementing regulations to prevent future crashes. It is also essential for investors to protect their investment portfolios from stock market crashes by adopting certain safety measures and strategies.

How to protect your 401(k) from a stock market crash

A stock market crash can affect your 401(k) plan differently depending on your age and when you plan to retire. For instance, if you are a young, long-term investor with many years left to retire, your investments will likely recoup over time, and a stock market crash may not affect you at all. In this case, you may be advised to let your investments be and not touch them when stock prices plummet. However, if you are close to retirement and have invested a large portion of your money in stocks, a market downturn can dramatically impact you and your future goals. This is one of the reasons why changing your portfolio’s asset allocation to debt from equity is advised as you move closer to retirement.

Here are some strategies and tips that can help you protect your 401(k) money in a stock market crash:

1. Keep a diversified portfolio to curtail risk and minimize losses

A diversified portfolio invests in a combination of different asset classes like stocks, bonds, cash, etc. It also focuses on various sectors, economies, and market capitalizations within the same asset class. For instance, you may invest in 15 stocks from different types of companies like small, mid, and large-cap and from different sectors rather than stocks from the same company.

By diversifying your portfolio, you can potentially offset losses in one area with the gains you earn in another. If you hold a mix of stocks, bonds, and cash, and the stock market crashes, your losses may be partially offset by bond and cash holdings gains. Different asset classes tend to perform differently under diverse market conditions. By spreading your money across various assets, you can reduce the overall volatility of your portfolio and achieve more stable returns.

There are several 401(k) investment options, such as mutual funds, stocks, target date funds, variable annuities, and others. You can find between 8 and 12 investment options in most plans. Investing in a combination of them and allocating funds based on your age and risk appetite can help you create a certain level of immunity against market downturns. For instance, investors in their 20s can invest more in stocks and equity mutual funds as they have a long investment horizon. Investors in their 50s may consider bonds over stocks to lower market exposure and safeguard themselves from an unexpected market crash close to retirement. Target date funds can also be a great choice and one of the safest investments for retirementThese funds adjust your asset allocation mix gradually over time by shifting from aggressive investments like stocks to more conservative investments like bonds and cash as the target date (in this case, retirement) approaches.

2. Review and rebalance your portfolio to ensure they are in line with your goals

It is important to note that while diversification can help reduce risk, it does not guarantee profits or protect against losses in all market conditions. Market downturns can impact all asset classes, and it is essential to regularly review and adjust your portfolio to ensure it aligns with your investment goals and risk tolerance. Rebalancing your 401(k) portfolio helps you stay on track toward your investment goals and manage risk appropriately.

401(k) investments react to the market differently and deliver varying returns. The difference in the performance of these investments can cause your asset allocation to drift away from your original target. Rebalancing helps to ensure that you maintain the appropriate mix of investments and keep your portfolio in line with your investment goals and risk tolerance. Reviewing your 401(k) portfolio periodically can reduce overall investment risk. You can sell assets that are overvalued and reinvest the money in assets that are undervalued. This ensures your portfolio is not too heavily weighted in any particular investment or sector.

It is important to review your 401(k) portfolio regularly and rebalance it as needed. You can do this once or twice a year or as advised by a financial advisor.

3. Do not panic and avoid taking emotional decisions without rational thought 

It is essential to stay focused on your long-term investment goals and not let short-term market fluctuations derail your plan. Your 401(k) plan may fluctuate, adding to stress. However, panic is never the solution and can only lead to poor decisions. It is essential to understand that a 401(k) plan is primarily a long-term investment. It requires you to be disciplined and consistent over many years. A few years of investing will not likely fetch you the returns you want, and a few market downturns may not always have disastrous consequences. Short-term fluctuations are expected, and the stock market tends to deliver good returns over the long term. Therefore, keep in mind that a temporary decline in value is not always worth your attention. Instead, the longer your investment horizon, the more time you have to ride out short-term market fluctuations and benefit from long-term market growth.

It is also essential to understand that market downturns are not always bad. In fact, they can create buying opportunities at lower prices. When you contribute to a 401(k) when the market is experiencing a downturn, you may be able to purchase more units of your investments at a lower price. Panic selling can also be costly. Not only do you miss out on the potential gains when the market eventually recoups, but it also triggers taxes. It is also nearly impossible to time the market and know when to buy and sell. Market crashes are also normal and likely to occur sooner or later. There have been several crashes in the past, but the market eventually recovered.

Fear is a natural reaction to losing money. But if you feel too overwhelmed, consider working with a financial advisor to maintain a disciplined investment approach and develop a strategy for managing risk over the long term.


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4. Change your 401(k) investment strategy by age to ensure you always meet your goals

Your 401(k) investment strategy should be designed to help you meet your retirement goals, considering your age, risk tolerance, and other factors. Since your risk appetite and goals are more or less linked to your age, it can help to develop 401(k) strategies based on your age.

In your 20s and 30s, you may be just starting your career and have a long time horizon to save and invest your money. This can offer you more time to take on risk and benefit from long-term market growth. Investing a larger percentage of your portfolio in stocks and other growth-oriented investments at this age is a good idea. These investments may be more volatile but are likely to offer higher long-term returns. In your 40s and 50s, your time horizon will shorten, and you will require a more balanced approach to investing. This can be the right time to gradually move from aggressive to conservative investments.  You can consider selling some stocks in favor of bonds and focus more on preserving your capital. However, it is not advised to completely eliminate stocks from your portfolio as you would still need growth-oriented investments to help your portfolio grow until retirement.

If you are still working in your 60s and beyond, you may want to shift even further towards conservative investments like bonds and cash, which can help protect your portfolio from market volatility and provide a steady income stream in retirement. You can still maintain some exposure to stocks and other growth-oriented investments to help your portfolio grow and keep pace with inflation after consulting with a financial advisor on the safest investment for you.

5. Hire a financial advisor to benefit from professional advice and assistance

Hiring a financial advisor is not mandatory, but it can help you in several ways. A financial advisor can help you decide on a suitable asset allocation based on your goals and risk appetite. They can also help you review your portfolio periodically or when the market crashes unexpectedly to minimize the damage. They can help you select the best 401(k) investments at every age and stage in life and help you develop a personalized investment strategy. This can streamline many things and end confusion or doubt that can lead to panic selling. Working with a financial advisor can give you peace of mind, knowing that you have a professional to help you make intelligent financial decisions and manage your retirement savings.

A financial advisor can also help you create a comprehensive retirement plan that considers not only your 401(k) savings but also other investments, like annuity insurance, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), Social Security benefits, and other sources of retirement income. They can help you estimate your retirement expenses and taxes and develop a savings plan to ensure that you have enough funds to last throughout your retirement, not only from a 401(k) but from your overall retirement portfolio, irrespective of market conditions.

While hiring a financial advisor will come with associated fees, and you may have to weigh the potential benefits against the costs, it may still benefit you to opt for their professional guidance and support in managing your retirement savings in a 401(k) plan.

To conclude

A stock market crash can be a worrying experience and push you to react out of fear. However, it is important to be rational at the time. While there is no way to avoid a market crash, you can adopt specific strategies that minimize or eliminate its adverse effects. Long-term investing, diversification, portfolio rebalancing, and age-appropriate investing can help you develop optimum protection against market downturns.

Use the free advisor match service to hire a suitable financial advisor in your area who can offer 401(k) advice in the current market scenario and help you protect your 401(k) from a future stock market crash. Answer a few simple questions based on your financial needs, and the match tool will help connect you with 1-3 financial advisors that are best suited to help you.

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