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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.
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.