Saturday, February 02, 2008

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!


If you’ve been asked in the past two weeks what to do about the market (and who hasn’t), I’m sure your response has been something along the lines of…“Nothing.”

There are, of course, more eloquent ways to express that sentiment. And, let’s face it, when it seems that everyone is asking that question – it’s generally well past the time when it is prudent to try and do something. Still, it seems that throughout my professional career, every time the market plunges (even when it stays down for an extended period), the pundits all seem to say the same thing; “the fundamentals are sound,” “we’re going through a period of short-term volatility”, sometimes even that that period of “short-term volatility” was anticipated (apparently even an innocuous footnote about the possibility of such things “counts”).

Naturally, we’d all like to believe is that we don’t need to do anything in these times of - “uncertainty” - because, well ahead of the current tumult, things have already been done to protect us on the downside. However much we would like to believe that, there’s something to be said for a timely, comforting voice of reassurance. Better yet if that reassurance comes from someone knowledgeable in such matters – and better still when that reassurance comes from someone familiar with the particulars of our investment portfolio. That’s why, to some extent, I find the platitudes from various economists somewhat disingenuous; not only are they blissfully ignorant of my own personal asset allocation, what they always seem to be saying, IMHO, is “don’t take your money away from us.”

Still, plan sponsor fiduciaries are generally appreciative of those messages. They bear responsibility for the prudence of such investments, after all – and the reassurances of experts that prudence has been manifested in their decisions (or their non-decisions) is understandably welcome. Most are only too happy to pass along those reassurances to the those on whose behalf their decisions (or non-decisions) have been made.

Those retirement plan participants are often reminded that their 401(k)s are long-term investments, that they continue to benefit from the on-going benefits of dollar-cost averaging, and perhaps increasingly that their investment in a diversified asset allocation “solution” means that they needn’t concern themselves with those kind of interim swings. And, for the most part, at least in my experience, on a day-to-day basis most are oblivious to a fault about the status of those investments. They may have a passing awareness that the markets are down, and some consciousness that their retirement plan investments could be impacted.

There is, however, a new generation of participant-investor emerging. One that has, consciously or, increasingly, unconsciously, relinquished control of that portfolio to experts – individual advisers, perhaps in the form of managed accounts, or less personalized solutions, such as target-date funds. What remains to be seen is how some of these “proxies” will fare in troubled markets – and perhaps just as importantly, how they will be perceived as doing.

Tough times can engender resentment and, in extreme cases, litigation. But they can also foster an appreciation for past expert counsel, and that current reassurance that the storm has been anticipated – and tough times can bring opportunity.

So, are the portfolios you’re responsible for standing pat – or just standing still?

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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