What to do when markets sell off

August 6, 2019

Greg Davis

Greg Davis
Vanguard chief investment officer

As I sit here putting this article together, U.S. equities have opened with gains, something the news headlines suggested was unlikely as I went to bed last night. China took steps to stabilize its currency, and that calmed nervous markets.

We tell investors they shouldn't pay attention to the markets' day-to-day movements. But it's sometimes impossible to avoid—like when stocks fall 3% in a day, as they did Monday, August 5, a sixth straight day of losses. That's why it’s so important that investors have an asset allocation they can remain committed to, even when markets might appear to be in a free fall.

Markets bounce back, whether their challenge is U.S.-China trade (as it has been recently), or Brexit, or simply the end of a business cycle.

Global economic challenges
No doubt, the global economy faces challenges. The U.S.-China trade dispute unsettles markets already coming to terms with economies nearing the end of their natural business cycles. The U.S. economy has grown for a decade; the European and Japanese economies, for most of that period. While a global or major regional recession in the next 12 months isn’t our base case, we do expect global growth to soften, as we discussed in our recent midyear market and economic update.

As economies soften, you can expect more volatility, more headlines professing doom, and, perhaps, more signals from within to just do something. And your clients may need to do something—but during a period of calm, not in a panic: Reevaluate their asset allocations.

Help clients get comfortable with their allocations
It's true that stocks offer investors of all ages an important means of growth in their portfolios. Older investors typically need less stock exposure and more fixed income exposure. Younger investors, who have more time to recover from any prolonged market downturn, can typically take on more stock risk. Of course, all investors are different, so individuals' asset allocations will vary.

Investors have largely been rewarded, especially so in the United States, for their stock exposure during a decade of global growth. We advise all investors to periodically rebalance their assets so gains in stocks, for example, don’t leave a portfolio with a greater-than-desired stock exposure.

Periodic rebalancing also lets investors perform a gut check: Am I going to stick with this allocation if stocks fall by 10%? By 20%? Help clients get comfortable with their allocations and they may be able to ward off any impulse to sell after markets have already fallen or buy after they’ve already risen.

Your clients can’t control what happens half a world away while you sleep. But if they have an asset allocation that they can remain committed to, they’re very much in control.


  • All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.
  • Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Investments in bond funds are subject to interest rate, credit, and inflation risk. Foreign investing involves additional risks, including currency fluctuations and political uncertainty. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market. There is no guarantee that any particular asset allocation or mix of funds will meet your investment objectives or provide you with a given level of income. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.

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