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This morning had all the makings of a bad market day. Markets in Europe and Asia dropped substantially overnight. The futures market was pointing to a significantly lower open. And on the Today show, CNBC analyst Jim Cramer told the world (or at least the small percentage of it that watches Today):
Whatever you may need for the next five years, please take it out of the stock market. Right now. This week. I do not believe that you should risk those assets in the stock market.
The Dow is down 700 points as I type. It looks as though investors are taking Cramer's advice -- and then some.
But is it sound advice?
Before we get to judging Cramer, let's acknowledge where his advice is coming from. First, this market is extraordinarily volatile -- the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index sits at an all-time high. Second, the near-term outlook for our economy is dim. Housing prices continue to drop, consumer confidence is in shambles, and the credit market -- with the three-month London Interbank Offered Rate at 4.29% -- is freezing up. It's unclear whether the $700 billion rescue package that Congress passed can have its desired affect. Third, as Ben Graham first noted, the stock market in the short-term is nothing more than a voting machine.
If people don't want to put their money at risk, a company's stock price will drop, regardless of the quality of the company's underlying fundamentals. For proof, note that more than 80% of all U.S.-listed stocks are down this year, including superior debt-free businesses such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY ) .
Put these facts together, and you see that Cramer is absolutely right that you should not be risking your rent money, tuition, or medical emergency funds speculating in stocks. There are too many unknowns, and as Cramer pointed out today, it could get worse before it gets better (though I pointed out the same facts last week on CBS's The Early Show). The money you need to live on for the next few years should be stashed safely in an FDIC-insured savings account or in a principal-protecting asset such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS).
You never should have been doing that in the first place
But here's where I -- and The Motley Fool -- differ from Jim Cramer. We never believe that you should risk any money you need for the next three to five years in stocks, and we've never told investors to buy any stock without at least a willingness to hold that security forever. To do so puts your hard-earned savings in the hands of market psychology, quarterly earnings announcements, and a whole host of other unpredictable and uncontrollable variables.
The goal of this column is not to demean Cramer, but the fact is that he approaches the market from a very different perspective. For example, one of my Foolish colleagues has documented how frequently he would have you trading in and out of Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG ) .
Such activity not only generates larger tax and trading bills, but it leaves you and your savings extremely vulnerable to sudden market downturns. Cramer's plea on NBC this morning is a welcome about-face.
That said …
Even investors who were roundly frightened by Cramer's sobering outlook should heed his recommendation that long-term money needs to stay in the market. Given the extreme downward pressure today, it seems that many investors are pulling all of their savings -- even if they won't need that cash for 10 or 20 years -- out of the market.
That is a shortsighted move. Yes, even the superior companies we mentioned above will suffer in a slowing economy (see eBay's announcement today that it's laying off 10% of its workforce), but each has a strong enough balance sheet and enough entrenched competitive advantages not only to weather the current crisis but also -- through market-share gains, smart acquisitions, and a shaking out of their competitors -- to come out stronger on the other side.
When that happens, you will want to be invested. You can even make big money if you have some long-term savings in cash today that you can use to buy shares of these oversold, yet superior businesses ... and here are five simple steps to go about doing just that. We're also recommending to members of our Motley Fool Global Gains service that now is a fabulous time to increase your exposure to foreign stocks -- again, provided you have some long-term cash. Not doing so is the biggest threat to your portfolio today.
We're not here to tell you that the U.S. economy is all puppy dogs and daffodils. It's not. But now is not the time to allow emotion to dictate your financial decision-making process.
If you have a sound asset-allocation plan that differentiates between short-term and long-term dollars, then you should have enough cash to see you through these lean times and be able to leave your long-term money in the market. If you don't have such a plan, then now is the time to put one in place for the next inevitable downturn.
Either way, the takeaway is the same: Stay stoic with your money. The highs are never as high as they seem, and fortunately, the lows are never as low.