Turbulent markets have spooked investors, leaving them with pressing questions about their financial future. Here are some of the most common, along with answers from two financial advisers who have received their share of calls from concerned clients. Could I lose everything? It's highly unlikely that the stock market will head all the way to zero. "Gross national product and the Dow Jones Industrial Average track each other," says Cliff Michaels, chief investment officer at Institutional Investment Advisors Corp., a New York-based independent financial planning and investment management firm. "Most of the companies on the Dow are multinational. If you consider global population and demographics, it's just a matter of time before they start to expand again." In short, if your investment portfolio is well balanced with a mix of equities and fixed-income investments that is appropriate for your time horizon, the chances are slim that you'll lose everything. Of course, if you panic and sell everything at the bottom, you'll probably take a serious financial hit. Should I stop contributing to my 401(k)? No, even though your balance is probably dismal. Rather than focusing on that number, think about the bargain you're getting on the shares you're buying with current contributions. "You have the opportunity to invest at lower levels than we've seen for a very long time," says Michaels. "You can buy a lot more shares with your money now than you could just a few years ago." Maintaining your 401(k) contributions also means you're also taking advantage of dollar-cost averaging. By investing a fixed amount at set intervals, "you're guaranteed to buy fewer shares when they're expensive and more when they're cheap," explains James Tissot, president of the New York chapter of the Financial Planning Association.
If you just can't stomach the stock market, allocate your new contributions to the fixed-income portion of your 401(k) plan. You may miss out on a rebounding stock market, but you'll probably sleep better knowing your cash is relatively safe. Are there any good companies in the market? Absolutely. "As long as you aren't speculating and getting too risky, there are a lot of low P/E, high-dividend, leadership companies out there," says Michaels. He notes that companies such as Chevron ( CVX), Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) and McDonald's ( MCD) are good candidates. What's more, many blue chips are still producing income for shareholders. "Companies such as AT&T ( T), Verizon ( VZ) and Coca-Cola ( KO) are still paying dividends," says Michaels. "Even if the Dow doesn't get back to 14,000, people can still receive their dividend income from those shares." Are there any tax-planning moves I should consider? Tax planning should never be your sole motivation for an investing move. Nevertheless, there are some steps you can take to cut your tax bill and boost your overall portfolio. For instance, you could sell shares of companies, such as Wal-Mart ( WMT), that continue to do well, and offset those gains by taking losses on other stocks. You can then go back and repurchase the gainers you just sold, if you think they're still worth holding. If you're thinking about repurchasing the losers you just sold, however, pay heed to the IRS' wash-sale rules. According to the rules, your losses aren't tax-deductible if you buy "substantially similar" shares within 30 days before or after the sale. "There are ways around the rule, though," says Tissot. "You can sell a mutual fund in order to harvest some taxable losses and then buy an exchange-traded fund that holds similar stocks."
Is there anything I can do to improve my financial situation? If you want to feel like you are doing something, re-examine your goals and make sure you maintain an appropriate asset allocation. This year's turbulence probably means, for example, that your bond holdings may now represent a larger portion of your portfolio than your original goal. Consider rebalancing your portfolio at least annually to maintain the appropriate exposure to equities and fixed-income investments for your financial goals. In the end, sticking with your long-term investing strategy may well be your safest move: "Losses are temporary and gains are permanent," says Michaels. "Over the history of the market, that has always held true."