WASHINGTON — The spread of the coronavirus is spooking investors, and the result has been some significant drops this week.
By the time the markets closed on Tuesday, the Dow Jones industrial average was down more than 1,900 points, 6.59% over two days, after news reports that the health scare was widening around the world - the worst two-day percentage loss in two years.
Other benchmarks — the S&P 500 and NASDAQ — also plunged amid the coronavirus-fueled volatility.
But the dives are more about people’s fears than the facts, according to certified financial planners and certified public accountants I polled. The one thing they all recommended: Don’t panic and jump completely out of the stock market — even if you’re retired.
Steven Podnos is a fee-only investment adviser based in Florida who also happens to be a critical care doctor in the Air Force Reserve.
“As a physician, the coronavirus looks no more virulent than influenza, so the impact is likely to be temporary and of little long-term concern,” he told me.
Clearly the burgeoning number of cases of coronavirus worldwide is worrisome. South Korea, Italy and Iran reported sharp increases in cases this past week. There have been more than 2,600 deaths in China, where the virus originated.
However, contrast this with the number of Americans who die each year from the flu, Podnos said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there were 34,200 deaths in the U.S. from influenza during the 2018-19 flu season. As of Tuesday, more than 50 people in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“If you look at infections outside of China, the mortality looks very, very low,” Podnos said. “And the people who are dying tend to be the old and immunosuppressed or otherwise sick.”
As an investor, it’s not that you shouldn’t be concerned about how the spread of the virus will impact businesses — especially those with manufacturing partners in China, considering that the country is a major player in the global economy. But resist your instinct to flee equities, echoed Lynn Ballou, a certified financial planner in Lafayette, California.
“Right now is the time to be thoughtful and not to be driven by fear,” said Ballou. She added that it’s like when her father was teaching her to drive and cautioned that if she started to lose control of her car in bad weather, she should steer into the skid.
“I looked at him and said, ‘That sounds like the opposite thing I should be doing,’” she said. “But in fact, that’s exactly right.”
This advice may not work for newer front-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles, but the general instruction about keeping calm and steering in the direction you want to go still applies when it comes to investing.
Keep in mind what happened during the Great Recession, when many people panicked and sold all of their stock holdings, Ballou said. Those who realized later that they needed growth to keep pace with inflation had to get back into the market.
“So when did they buy back in? Did they wait until the market had already completely recovered? Basically what they did was sold low and bought high,” Ballou said.
If you’ve got decades before you plan to retire, you can afford to keep steering into stocks.
“Increase your investing amounts,” said David Holland, another Florida-based certified financial planner. “No one should let one event or one day’s market activity dictate their overall financial, investing and retirement plans.”
OK, if you’re five to 10 years from retirement, you may be wondering: What about me?
“Remember that just because retirement is on the horizon, doesn’t mean you should sell out of your entire portfolio during the first signs of a market downturn, as many retirees will need their portfolios to last for 20-plus years,” said Betterment certified financial planner Corbin Blackwell.
For the vast majority of clients who are less than a few decades out from retirement, CPA Doug Radtke recommends a more conservative portfolio allocation: a 60/40 investment mix of equities and fixed-income products.
“Consider looking for recession-proof fund mixes that include stocks for businesses that succeed even in slower times — such as water utilities or certain consumer products,” Radtke said.
All the financial planners and CPAs suggest that you should have money set aside — three to five years’ worth of your income needs — that isn’t impacted by roller-coaster swings in the stock market.
“Fortunes are made and lost during volatile times,” said Daniel Morris, a CPA in California. “A diversified portfolio limits the gains and limits the losses in order to maintain some equitable smoothness.”
So, what’s the takeaway if you’re saving for retirement?
The stock market will do what it does — rise and fall. If you’ve got a plan based on your risk tolerance and investment horizon, don’t let fear make you swerve in the wrong direction and lose traction.
Michelle Singletary is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.