What You Need to Know When the Market Is Down

By Inyoung Hwang · January 10, 2023 · 10 minute read

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What You Need to Know When the Market Is Down

What do you do with your stocks when the market drops? If you’re like most people, your first instinct is to sell. It’s human nature, and behavioral finance studies bear this out. When your investments go up in value, it feels great. But when they decline, selling everything can seem like the best way out of a bad situation.

But instinctively selling when stocks drop is often counterproductive, and it may make more sense to invest while the market is down.

Should You Invest When the Market Is Down?

It’s generally a good idea to invest when the stock market is down as long as you’re planning to invest for the long term. Seasoned investors know that investing in the market is a long-term prospect. Stock market dips, corrections, or even bear markets are usually temporary, and, given enough time, your portfolio may recover.

When the market is down, it provides an opportunity to buy shares of stock at a lower price, which means you can potentially earn a higher return on your investment when the market recovers.

For example, in late 2007, stocks began one of the most dramatic plunges in their history. From October 2007 to March 2009, the S&P 500 Index fell 57%. During that time, many investors panicked and sold their holdings for fear of further losses.

However, the market bottomed out on March 9, 2009, and started a recovery that would turn into the longest bull market in history. Four years later, in 2013, the S&P 500 surpassed the high it reached in 2007. While that historic plunge of over 50% was terrifying, if you panicked and sold, rather than employ bear market investing strategies, you would have locked in your losses — and missed the subsequent recovery.

If, on the other hand, you had kept your investments, you would have seen stock values fall at first, but as the market reversed course, you may have seen portfolio gains again.

Consider the recent example of how the markets performed during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. The S&P 500 fell about 34% from February 19, 2020, to March 23, 2020, as the pandemic ravaged the globe. However, stocks rebounded and made up the losses by August. Nearly three years later, stocks are still above their pre-pandemic high, even considering the bear market of 2022.

These examples illustrate why timing the market is rarely successful, but holding stock over the long term tends to be a smart strategy.

It’s still important to keep in mind that the stock market can be volatile and can fluctuate significantly in the short term. Therefore, you must be prepared for short-term losses and have a long-term investment horizon.

Recommended: Bull vs. Bear Market: What’s the Difference?

4 Things to Do During a Market Downturn

When the stock market is down, it can be a worrying time for investors. But it’s important to remember that market downturns are a normal part of the investing process and that the market may eventually recover. Here are a few things to do during a market downturn.

1. Stay Calm and Avoid Making Impulsive Decisions

It’s natural to feel worried or concerned when the stock market is down, but it’s essential to maintain a long-term perspective and not make rash decisions based on short-term market movements.

Buying and selling stocks based on gut reactions to temporary volatility can derail your investment plan, potentially setting you back.

You likely built your investment plan with specific goals in mind, and your diversified portfolio was probably based on your time horizon and risk tolerance preferences. Impulsive selling (or buying) can throw off this balance.

Instead of letting emotions rule the day, consider having a plan that includes investing more when the market is down (aka buying the dip). These strategies involve buying stocks on sale, and the hope is that the downturn is temporary and you’ll be able to ride any upturn to potential earnings.

So, when markets take a tumble, your best move is often to stay calm and continue investing.

That said, any investment decisions you make should be based on your own needs. Just because the market is down doesn’t mean you have to buy anything. Buying stocks on impulse just because they’re cheaper might throw a wrench in your plan, just like rushing to sell. Taking time to consider your long-term needs and doing research typically pays off.

2. Evaluate Your Portfolio

Review your portfolio and make sure it’s properly diversified. Portfolio diversification may reduce the overall risk of your portfolio by spreading your investments across different asset classes, like stocks, bonds, real estate, and cash. Investing in various assets and industries can protect your portfolio during a market downturn.

However, even if you have a well-diversified portfolio, you may also need to pay attention to your portfolio’s asset allocation during volatile markets. For example, during a down stock market, your stock holdings may become a lower percentage of your portfolio than desired, while bonds or cash become a more significant part of your overall holdings. If your portfolio has become heavily weighted in a particular asset class or sector, it could be strategic to sell some of those holdings and use the proceeds to buy securities to rebalance your portfolio at your desired asset allocation.

Recommended: How Often Should You Rebalance Your Portfolio?

3. Take Advantage of Low Prices With Dollar-Cost Averaging

To help curb your impulse to pull out of the market when it is low — and continue investing instead — you may want to consider dollar cost averaging.

Here’s how it works: On a regular schedule — say every month — you invest a set amount of money in the stock market. While the amount you invest each month will remain the same, the number of shares you’ll be able to purchase will vary based on the current cost of each share.

For example, let’s say you invest $100 a month. In January, that $100 might buy ten shares of a mutual fund at $10 a share. Suppose the market dips in April, and the fund’s shares are now worth $5. Instead of panicking and selling, you continue to invest your $100. That month, your $100 buys 20 shares.

In June, when the market rises again, the fund costs $25 a share, and your $100 buys four shares. In this way, dollar cost averaging helps you buy more shares when the markets are down, essentially allowing you to buy low and limiting the number of shares you can buy when markets are up. This helps protect from “buying high.”

After ten years of investing $100 a month, the value of each share is $50. Even if some shares you bought cost more than that, your average cost per share is likely lower than the fund’s current price.

Steady investments over time are more likely to give you a favorable return than dumping a large amount of money into the market and hoping you timed it right.

4. Consider Tax-Loss Harvesting

If you’ve already experienced losses, you may want to consider tax-loss harvesting — the practice of selling investments that experienced a loss to offset your gains from other investments.

Imagine that you invest $10,000 in a stock in January. Over the year, the stock decreases in value, and at the end of the year, it is only worth $7,500. Instead of wishing you’d had better luck, you can sell that position and reinvest the money in a similar (but not identical) stock or mutual fund.

You get the benefit of maintaining a similar investment profile that will hopefully grow in value over time, and you can write off the $2,500 loss for tax purposes. You can write off the total amount against any capital gains you may have in this year or any future year, helping to lower your tax bill. This is tax-loss harvesting.

You can also deduct up to $3,000 of capital losses each year from your ordinary income. However, you must deduct your losses against capital gains first before using the excess to offset income. Losses beyond $3,000 can be rolled over into subsequent years, known as tax loss carryforward.

During major market downturns, this technique can ease the pain of capital losses — but it’s important to consider reinvesting the money you raise when you sell, or you’ll risk missing the recovery. But remember that with investing comes risk, so there’s no assurance that a recovery will occur.

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4 Things to Avoid When the Market Is Down

Feeling anxious when the stock market is down is natural, but it’s important to remain calm and not let fear drive your investment decisions. Here are a few things to avoid when the stock market is down.

1. Trying to Time the Market

Timing the market is the idea that you will somehow beat the market by attempting to predict future market movements and buying and selling accordingly.

However, it’s difficult to predict with certainty when the stock market will go up or down, so trying to time the market is generally a futile endeavor. As they say: No one has a crystal ball in this business.

As a result, timing the market is not a strategy that works for most investors. Even during a down market, you should not wait until the market hits bottom to start investing in stocks again.

2. Selling All Your Stocks

You should resist the temptation to sell all of your stocks or make other rash decisions when the market is down. While it may be tempting to sell all of your stocks during a down market, it’s important to remember that the stock market usually recovers. If you sell all of your stocks when the market is down, you may miss out on the opportunity to participate in the market’s recovery.

3. Chasing After High-Risk Investments

When stocks are down, you may be inclined to try to earn quick profits by investing in high-risk assets — like commodities or >cryptocurrencies — but these investments can be particularly volatile and are not suitable for everyone.

Moreover, riskier investment strategies like options and margin trading may be an appealing way to amplify returns in down markets. But if you are not comfortable using these strategies, you could end up with even bigger losses.

Recommended: Options Trading 101: An Introduction to Stock Options

4. Abandoning Your Long-Term Financial Plan

It’s important to remember that the stock market is just one part of your overall financial plan. Keep your long-term financial goals in mind, and don’t let short-term market movements distract you from your larger financial objectives.

Risks to Investing in Down Markets

While the stock market generally recovers after a decline, there are exceptions to the idea that the market tends to snap back quickly or always trends upward.

Take the stock market crash of 1929. Share prices continued to slide until 1932, as the Great Depression ravaged the economy. The Dow Jones Industrial Average didn’t reach its pre-crash high until November 1954.

In addition, as of early 2023, the Nikkei 225 — the benchmark stock index in Japan — has yet to reach the peak of over 38,000 it hit at the end of 1989. Back then, the index went on to lose half its value in three years as an economic bubble in the country burst. However, the Nikkei did touch the 30,000 level at various points in 2021 for the first time since 1990.

So, investors need to remember that just because stock markets have recovered in the past doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. As the saying goes, past performance is not indicative of future results.

The Takeaway

Almost everyone feels a sense of worry (or fear) when the market is down. It’s only natural to find yourself swamped with doubts: What if the market keeps sliding? What if I lose everything? What if it’s one of those rare occurrences when the recovery takes ten years?

Rather than succumb to panic, the best investment advice is not to give in to your impulses to sell or scrap your entire investment strategy, but to stay the course. Using strategies like dollar-cost averaging, which allow you to invest in a down market sensibly, can be a part of a balanced investment strategy that helps grow wealth over time.

So put aside what the market is doing today, and remember the long game. If you’re ready to start investing, you can open an online brokerage account with as little as $5 on SoFi Invest®. You can buy and sell stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and fractional shares — all from the convenience of your phone or laptop.

For a limited time, opening and funding an Active Invest account gives you the opportunity to get up to $1,000 in the stock of your choice.

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