When markets are volatile, and you start to see your portfolio shrink, there may be an impulse to pull your money out and put it somewhere safe — but acting on that desire may actually expose you to a higher level of risk.
In fact, there’s a whole field of research devoted to investor behavior, and the financial consequences of following your emotions (hint: the results are less than ideal).
A better strategy might be to anticipate your own natural reactions when markets drop — or when there’s a stock market crash — and wait to make investment choices based on more rational thinking (or even a set of rules you’ve set up for yourself in advance).
After all, for many investors — especially younger investors — time in the market often beats timing the stock market. Here’s an overview of factors investors might weigh when deciding whether to keep money in the stock market.
Investing Can Be an Emotional Ride
An emotion-guided approach to the stock market, whether it’s the sudden offloading or purchasing of stocks, can stem from an attempt to predict the short-term movements in the market. This approach is called timing the market.
And while the notion of trying to predict the perfect time to buy or sell is a familiar one, investors are also prone to specific behaviors or biases that can expose them to further risk of losses.
Giving into Fear
When markets experience a sharp decline, some investors might feel tempted to give in to FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). Investors might assume that by selling now they’re shielding themselves from further losses.
This logic, however, presumes that investing in a down market means the market will continue to go down, which — given the volatility of prices and the impossibility of knowing the future — may or may not be the case.
Focusing on temporary declines might compel some investors to make hasty decisions that they may later regret. After all, over time, markets tend to correct.
Following the Crowd
Likewise, when the market is moving upwards, investors can sometimes fall victim to what’s known as FOMO (fear of missing out) — buying under the assumption that today’s growth is a sign of tomorrow’s continued boom. That strategy is not guaranteed to yield success either.
Why Time in the Market Matters
Answering the question, “Should I pull my money out of the stock market?” will depend on an investor’s time horizon — or, the length of time they aim to hold an investment before selling.
Many industry studies have shown that time in the market is typically a wiser approach versus trying to time the stock market or give in to panic selling.
One such groundbreaking study by Brad Barber and Terence Odean was called, “Trading Is Hazardous to Your Wealth: The Common Stock Investment Performance of Individual Investors.”
It was published in April 2000 in the Journal of Finance, and it was one of the first studies to quantify the gap between market returns and investor returns.
• Market returns are simply the average return of the market itself over a specific period of time.
• Investor returns, however, are what the average investor tends to reap — and investor returns are significantly lower, the study found, particularly among those who trade more often.
In other words, when investors try to time the market by selling on the dip and buying on the rise, they actually lose out.
By contrast, keeping money in the market for a long period of time can help cut the risk of short-term dips or declines in stock pricing. Staying put despite periods of volatility, for some investors, could be a sound strategy.
An investor’s time horizon may play a significant role in determining whether or not they might want to get out of the stock market. Generally, the longer a period of time an investor has to ride out the market, the less they may want to fret about their portfolio during upheaval.
Compare, for instance, the scenario of a 25-year-old who has decades to make back short-term losses versus someone who is about to retire and needs to begin taking withdrawals from their investment accounts.
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Is It Okay to Pull Out of the Market During a Downturn?
There is nothing wrong with deciding to pull out of the markets if they go south. But if you sell stock or other assets during a downturn, you run the risk of locking in your losses, as they say. Depending on how far values have declined, you might lose some of your gains, or you might lose some or all of your principal.
In a perfect world if you timed it right, you could pull your money out at the right moment and avoid the worst — and then buy back in, just in time to catch the rebound. While this sounds smart, it’s very difficult to pull off.
Benefits of Pulling Out of the Market
The benefit of pulling out of the market and keeping your money in cash is that cash isn’t volatile. Generally speaking, your cash won’t lose value over night, and that can provide some financial as well as psychological comfort.
As noted above if you make your move at the right time, you might prevent steeper losses — but without a crystal ball, there are no guarantees. That said, by using stop-limit orders, you can create your own guardrails by automatically triggering a sale of certain securities if the price hits specific lows.
Disadvantages of Pulling Out of the Market
There are a few disadvantages to pulling cash out of the market during a downturn. First, as discussed earlier, there’s the risk of locking in losses if you sell your holdings too quickly.
Potentially worse is the risk of missing the rebound as well. Locking in losses and then losing out on gains basically acts as a double loss.
When you realize certain losses, as when you realize gains, you will likely have to deal with certain tax consequences.
And while moving to cash may feel safe, because you’re unlikely to see sudden declines in your cash holdings, the reality is that keeping money in cash increases the risk of inflation.
💡 Recommended: How to Protect Your Money From Inflation
Using Limit Orders to Manage Risk
A market order is simply a basic trade, when you buy or sell a stock at the market price. But when markets start to drop, a limit order does just that — it puts a limit on the price at which you’re willing to sell (or buy) securities.
Limit orders are triggered automatically when the security hits a certain price. For sell limit orders, for example, the order will be executed at the price you set or higher. (A buy limit order means the trade will only be executed at that price or lower.)
By using certain types of orders, traders can potentially reduce their risk of losses and avoid unpredictable swings in the market.
Alternatives to Getting Out of the Stock Market
Here’s an overview of some alternatives to getting out of the stock market:
Rotating into Safe Haven Assets
Investors could choose to rotate some of their investments into safe haven assets (i.e. those that aren’t correlated with market volatility). Gold, silver, and bonds are often thought of as some of the safe havens that investors first flock to during times of uncertainty.
By rebalancing a portfolio so fewer holdings are impacted by market volatility, investors might reduce the risk of loss.
Reassessing where to allocate one’s assets is no simple task and, if done too rashly, could lead to losses in the long run. So, it may be helpful for investors to speak with a financial professional before making a big investment change that’s driven by the news of the day.
Having a Diversified Portfolio
Instead of shifting investments into safe haven assets, like precious metals, some investors prefer to cultivate a well-diversified portfolio from the start.
In this case, there’d be less need to rotate funds towards “safer” investments during a decline, as the portfolio would already offer enough diversification to help mitigate the risks of market volatility.
Reinvesting dividends may also lead the long-term investor’s portfolio to continue growing at a steady pace, even when share prices decline temporarily. Knowing where and when to reinvest earnings is another factor investors may want to chew on when deciding which strategy to adopt.
(Any dividend-yielding stocks an investor holds must be owned on or before the ex-dividend date. Otherwise, the dividend won’t be credited to the investor’s account. So, if an investor decides to get out of the stock market, they may miss out on dividend payments.)
Rebalancing a Portfolio
Sometimes, astute investors also choose to rebalance their portfolio in a downturn — by buying new stocks. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to profit from new trends that can come forth during a crisis.
It’s worth noting that this investment strategy doesn’t involve pulling money out of the stock market — it just means selling some stocks to buy others.
For example, during the initial shock of the 2020 crisis, many stocks suffered steep declines. But, there were some that outperformed the market due to certain market shifts. Stocks for companies that specialize in work-from-home software, like those in the video conferencing space, saw increases in value.
Bear in mind, though, that these gains are often temporary. For example, home workout equipment, like exercise bikes, became in high demand, leading related stocks higher. Some remote-based healthcare companies saw share prices rise. But in some cases, these gains were short-lived.
Also, for newer investors or those with low risk tolerance, attempting this strategy might not be a desirable option.
Reassessing Asset Allocation
During downturns, it could be worthwhile for investors to examine their asset allocations — or, the amount of money an investor holds in each asset.
If an investor holds stocks in industries that have been struggling and may continue to struggle due to floundering demand (think restaurants, retail, or oil in 2020), they may opt to sell some of the stocks that are declining in value.
Even if such holdings get sold at a loss, the investor could then put money earned from the sale of these stocks towards safe haven assets — potentially gaining back their recent losses.
Holding Cash Has Its Benefits
Cash can be an added asset, too. Naturally, the value of cash is shaped by things like inflation, so its purchase power can swing up and down. Still, there are advantages to stockpiling some cash. Money invested in other assets, after all, is — by definition — tied up in that asset. That money is not immediately liquid.
Cash, on the other hand, could be set aside in a savings account or in an emergency fund — unencumbered by a specific investment. Here are some potential benefits to cash holdings:
First, on a psychological level, an investor who knows they have cash on hand may be less prone to feel they’re at risk of losing it all (when stocks fluctuate or flail).
A secondary benefit of cash involves having some “dry powder” — or, money on hand that could be used to buy additional stocks if the market keeps dipping. In investing, it can pay to a “contrarian,” running against the crowd. In other words, when others are selling (aka being fearful), a savvy investor might want to buy.
Pulling money out of the market during a downturn is a natural impulse for many investors. After all, everyone wants to avoid losses. But attempting to time the market (when there’s no crystal ball) can be risky and stressful.
For many investors, especially younger investors with a longer time horizon, keeping money in the stock market may carry advantages over time. One approach to investing is to establish long-term investment goals and then strive to stay the course — even when facing market headwinds.
Always, when it comes to investing in the stock market, there’s no guarantee of increasing returns. So, individual investors will want to examine their personal economic needs and short-term and future financial goals before deciding when and how to invest.
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Should you pull out of the stock market?
Ideally, you don’t want to impulsively pull your money out of the market when there is a crisis or sudden volatility. While a down market can be unnerving, and the desire to put your money into safe investments is understandable, this can actually expose you to more risk.
When is it smart to pull out of stocks?
In some cases it might be smart to pull your money out of certain stocks when they reach a predetermined price (you can use a limit order to set those guardrails); when you want to buy into new opportunities; or add diversification to your portfolio.
What are your options for getting out of the stock market?
There are always options besides the stock market. The ones that are most appealing depend on your goals. You can invest in safe haven investments (e.g. bonds or precious metals), you can put your money into cash; you can consider other assets such as real estate.
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