What a crazy week, eh?
Right now, the United States is experiencing an unprecedented financial shake-up. No one knows just how deep, or far-reaching, the damage will be. Though to some extent we'll be at the mercy of the markets, here are four important steps you can take to protect yourself from a future financial fallout.
1. Don't make rash decisions
If I could give investors one piece of advice, it would be this -- turn off the TV! While government bailouts and plunging markets make for great headlines, they aren't the best trading indicators. It's perfectly reasonable to want to keep up with unfolding events, but making rash buying or selling decisions based on the latest updates from the media circus is a losing strategy.
As fellow Fool Tim Hanson recently pointed out, when you take a long-term view of investing, volatility isn't as much of a concern. If you're focused on the big picture, even harrowing market drops won't ruffle your feathers, because you know over the long-run the ups and downs tend to smooth out into a nice upward trajectory.
It's going to be especially hard in the coming months to stay focused and dispassionate, as the bad news is almost certainly far from over. This isn't to say you can't make adjustments to your portfolio in times like these -- just make sure you've got a solid, strategic reason for making changes, rather than selling and running away in fear.
2. Analyze your exposure to the financial sector
Whether you hold individual financial stocks, mutual funds, or ETFs, you may have more exposure than you think. If you own the S&P 500 index, for example, you are 15% invested in financial firms.
Even with the federal government stepping in with aid, banks and financial institutions are facing an uphill battle, so if you're holding a lot of financial stocks, you better be sure you understand how these companies make money and what the risks are in today's environment.
If you are going to invest in financial companies, only choose those with strong balance sheets, conservative lending standards, and some measure of transparency. Risk-takers Lehman Brothers (NYSE: LEH ) and Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM ) truly got themselves into trouble, but BB&T (NYSE: BBT ) and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , for instance, are more likely to emerge from this crisis in an even stronger competitive position.
3. Use market drops to look for new opportunities
As legendary investor Shelby Davis once said, "You make most of your money during a bear market. You just don't realize it at the time."
The bright side of a market sell-off is that intrepid investors can snap up some terrific stocks that have been dragged down with the rest of the market.
With the economy in a tailspin, declining housing prices, and tightening credit, there's a chance the U.S. could be entering a deflationary period. Inflation was down slightly this month (albeit to 5.4%), and this week the Fed, in light of declining energy prices, refused to cut rates any further.
You might investigate companies that do well in deflationary times -- such as utility stocks. Consider giving Dominion Resources (NYSE: D ) , PG&E (NYSE: PCG ) , or Southern Company (NYSE: SO ) a second look. If such an environment does take hold, you'll be glad you did.
4. Make sure you've got a diversified portfolio
There are no clear answers on where we are going from here. But one of the best defenses against the financial crisis is a diversified portfolio.
That's one reason why I'm a fan of mutual funds, especially in today's challenging environment. Buying a handful of funds with top-notch managers means you're automatically diversified among dozens or hundreds of stocks. What's more, funds give you a little professional guidance in this uncertain market.
If you want the inside track on which funds are the best of the bunch, check out the Fool's Champion Funds investment service. You can sneak a peek at all of our picks with a free 30-day trial. Even if you're a die-hard stock picker, you might want to consider a fund or two to balance out your portfolio and add another layer of diversification.
Amanda Kish heads up the Fool's Champion Funds newsletter service. At the time of publication, she did not own any of the companies mentioned herein. BB&T and Southern Company are Income Investor picks. Click here to find out more about the Fool's disclosure policy.