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Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, here comes another market dive. Are we on track for Market Meltdown II?

Two weeks ago, it was easy to dismiss the so-called Flash Crash as a strange occurrence based on arcane market mechanisms. But last Thursday, the stock market was right back at those same levels, and we've gotten there the old-fashioned way: with a plain vanilla 375-point dive in the Dow last Thursday. What do the latest happenings in the financial markets mean for retirement investors who have only recently felt comfortable again after the beating they took during the bear market in 2008 and early 2009?

Riding to the rescue
Against this unexpectedly dour backdrop, the Fool's Rule Your Retirement service opened its doors to questions from its subscribers. The live-chat session that took place last Thursday gave me the unique opportunity to join Foolish retirement expert and RYR lead advisor Robert Brokamp, along with mutual fund guru Amanda Kish and fellow advisor Jeremy Myers. For an hour and a half, we spoke with subscribers about the concerns they have and the troubles they face in these tough times.

As you'd expect, the audience didn't waste any time before getting to the news of the day. One audience member pointed out that after sitting tight through the last bear market, she had almost gotten her portfolio back to its pre-2008 levels, only to see the bottom fall out again in recent weeks.

It's easy to get hung up on short-term events, especially when they're big market moves. Sure, with a few stocks, you'll find some company-specific news items that justify big drops. For instance, Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD  ) fell by more than 10% Thursday after announcing lower net income and flat revenue that failed to meet analysts' expectations. Similarly, Tidewater (NYSE: TDW  ) reported disappointing earnings that fell by almost half from last year's first quarter, amid concerns that the Gulf oil spill has spread throughout the oil-services industry.

But in most cases, nothing has changed with companies except their stock prices. Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) remains on track to deliver double-digit income growth in 2010, even if investors weren't entirely happy with its analyst-beating earnings in the first quarter. But the shares dropped by 3% on a single day -- not exactly a reflection of changing fundamentals.

In general, if you're comfortable with the portfolio you have and the specific investments you own, yesterday's drop shouldn't change your mind. Sticking with your overall plan is a key element to your financial success.

Beating the bear
Of course, some people don't just want to survive a bear market; they want to beat it. Some participants asked questions about whether leveraged ETFs were an appropriate way to take advantage of market volatility. If you believe that financial stocks will bounce back from the recent concerns about Europe, then the Direxion Daily Financial Bull 3x ETF (NYSE: FAS  ) could give you triple-sized gains. But of course, on a single day last week when financials got slaughtered, the danger of such funds was exposed: The Direxion ETF lost more than 13% in one fell swoop.

On the other hand, bear-market funds did pretty well. One subscriber suggested possibly using the ProShares UltraShort S&P 500 (NYSE: SDS  ) , which rose by nearly 8% last Thursday, and the similar ProShares UltraShort QQQ (NYSE: QID  ) , which tracks the Nasdaq 100 index and gained 7%, to seek out gains from a falling market. Yet as Robert pointed out, tracking errors that these funds suffer over longer periods can hurt you even if you're right about which way the market will move. Guess wrong, and the consequences are even more dire.

Staying safe
The panel explored a number of other suggestions on how to protect yourself in tough markets. The proper use of retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and traditional and Roth IRAs was a frequent topic of conversation. The role of bonds and dividend stocks in generating income for retirees was also an important subject for many participants.

Moreover, not all of the questions were investing-related. Robert and his fellow panelists helped participants try to navigate the difficult decision-making process of when to take Social Security benefits. Those rules are especially complicated for couples trying to coordinate their joint benefits, but with some helpful advice, several audience members went home with a better understanding of the trade-offs involved in taking money at their earliest possibility versus waiting until full retirement age.

The value of community
Perhaps the biggest benefit of the chat, however, was in seeing how many people are in similar situations to what you might face. By sharing ideas and insights, you can learn from each other and find the best paths for everyone to follow. That's one of the main missions of Rule Your Retirement, and if you're looking for more support in the decisions you have to make, then it might be exactly what you're looking for.

After a drop like last week's, it's easy to lose sight of your long-term goals. But by having a well-established strategy and sticking to it, you'll be better prepared to keep a tough stock market from wrecking your retirement.

To see the full transcript of last Thursday's chat, just sign up for a free trial of Rule Your Retirement. It gives you full access to all our retirement resources for 30 days with no obligation.

Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger ain't afraid of no crash. He doesn't own shares of the companies or funds mentioned in this article. The Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola, which is a Motley Fool Inside Value and Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy thinks the stock market is the most fun roller-coaster ride of all.

Read/Post Comments (1) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2010, at 5:31 AM, gbroyal wrote:

    I sympathise with the member of yourr seminar who sat tight through the 08 storm, She had no advice from anyone at Motley Fool. You continued to recomend buying opportunities..I sold everything and had a lot of sarcastic coment from your Investment Gurus. I told you that I sold everything aand waited for the recovery to start, when it did I went back in to the stocks I had previously held. They made a profit for my portfolio rather than a recovery. Regardles of the merit of a company when the market falls like a stone, that company goes with the flow. I am at a loss to try to understand why you who are so close to the market and make your living by it, do nothing about about advising us what to do except point out buying opportunities and talk abou Warren Buffet. If I had the same financial background, loosing a few million woud not make much difference to my standard of living or harm my recovery prospect,but life is not like that for most of us,and I suspect most of your subscribers, so please do not compare my stratergy to that of WB. since we are not singing off the same Hymn sheet. why then not think outside the box, one that does not include WB. Judging from your Million Dollar portfolio you need a vigourous shakeup in the management ther too. GBROYAL

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