It finally happened. The stock market hit a new record high, and now, everyone's fighting about whether it marks the end of an impressive bull market or just the beginning of a much larger one. Yet while it's the job of financial television to turn every daily move into a media event, your investing strategy needs to last not just for today or tomorrow but next year and for the rest of your life. With stocks at unprecedented lofty heights, what's the right move for your money?
Fighting the urge to do something different
For those of you who already have a solid investing plan, the answer is likely nothing at all. The best plans include strategies that focus less on daily valuations and more on long-term trends. So although seeing stocks at record highs might trigger a minor event like a rebalancing of your portfolio in order to moderate risk, it likely wouldn't include major changes to the makeup of your investments, either in the direction of wholesale selling out of the stock market entirely or in plowing all your spare cash into stocks in hopes of another leg up in the bull run.
Unfortunately, millions of investors don't have a solid investing plan. With the market's meltdown back in 2008 and 2009 having scared many of those investors out of stocks entirely, the past four years have been a missed opportunity. Waiting for a long-awaited pullback has proven to be a fruitless hope, as stocks have moved higher with only brief pauses along the way.
So if you're assessing what to do in light of the Dow's record run, here are a few ideas for you to consider.
Tip 1: Figure out a path to an investment portfolio with acceptable risks.
The simplest way to invest is using an asset-allocation strategy that divides your money across different types of investments. By keeping a mix of all of those -- with higher allocations to stocks for more aggressive investors and lower ones for more conservative investors -- you can give yourself a course to follow throughout your investing career.
Admittedly, every investment has risks right now. For stocks, valuation is a concern, even though corporate profits are also at all-time highs. Bonds may seem safer, but the threat of higher interest rates could make today's bond buyers regret their timing. Even cash has risk, as trends toward dollar devaluation compared to other currencies and rock-bottom interest rates that don't even keep up with inflation slowly erode your purchasing power.
Once you've decided on the right mix of investments, the next step is to figure out what you need to buy and sell to implement it. If you're cash-rich but nervous about the market, take more time to ramp up your stock exposure, making new investments on a regular, repeated basis rather than buying in a single lump sum. If you're more comfortable with a one-and-done approach, though, then don't hesitate to do the lump sum -- historically, it has proven to be the better move more often than not.
Tip 2: Even in a high market, there are still bargains.
Just because a major benchmark hits a high doesn't mean that everything is expensive. Shopping in beaten-down corners of the market can unearth smart buys.
One such area involves commodities. The global slowdown has indiscriminately hammered many promising companies in the energy and natural-resources areas, as fears of overproduction and supply gluts have created overhangs in formerly hot markets. But if the market's highs accurately reflect an economic rebound, then the best companies in these sectors should flourish. National Oilwell Varco (NYSE:NOV) stands to benefit from greater levels of energy-related activity, as it will mean selling more of the pipe and other drilling supplies it provides for exploration and production companies. Similarly, Joy Global (NYSE:JOY) and Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) stand to gain from higher demand for the heavy equipment that mining companies need in order to unearth natural resources. Yet all of those stocks trade well off their yearly highs and have reasonable valuations to boot.
If you don't like commodity-related plays, you can find other opportunities. The key is to start thinking like a value investor and realize that pockets of good value still wait to be discovered.
Tip 3: Trim unsustainable high-flying stocks.
Conversely, if the market has bid up a stock beyond belief, trimming down your position makes sense -- but only if you think its gains are unsustainable.
Too often, investors ignore that caveat and end up selling a high-flying stock early in its cycle. Countless times, priceline.com (NASDAQ:BKNG) presented investors with compelling reasons to sell out, most notably during the big recession in 2008 and 2009. Yet the company's competitive advantage persisted, leading it to much greater gains than its industry peers.
So don't sell automatically just because stocks are at record highs. The best reason to sell is a threat to your long-term investing thesis behind the stock.
Keep calm and invest on
The market's at a record high, but what happens next is anyone's guess. The best thing to do now is to get a plan that you can follow not just today but well into the future, no matter which direction stocks move.
Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger.