How To Invest During a Recession

Wealth Management Strategies in a Recession

A young investor look at his portfolio.
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During a recession or economic downturn, where to invest your money can be both challenging and stressful. Certain investments, such as stocks, can be riskier in a down market. However, you might be able to achieve stable returns in a recession if you follow these basic and timeless strategies.

  • Investing during a recession or economic downturn can be challenging since equity markets tend to fall during recessions.
  • Taking a long-term view of the market can help you ride out market downturns.
  • Dollar-cost averaging involves investing the same dollar amount, whether the market is trending up or down, allowing you to achieve a lower average cost.
  • Understanding your risk tolerance and time horizon helps you set aside cash for your short-term needs and invest the rest for the long term.

How To Invest During a Recession

Investing during a recession might lead you to attempt to time the market when stock prices are low and falling, hoping that stocks will rebound quickly. However, the most effective way to manage your money in a recession can depend on several factors, including your risk tolerance and time horizon, meaning how long until you need access to the money.

Dollar-Cost Averaging (DCA)

Whether you're regularly contributing to a 401(k) or an individual retirement account (IRA) or investing in a non-retirement account through your broker, it might be wise to continue doing so during a recession.

The strategy of dollar-cost averaging allows you to invest the same dollar amount consistently, whether the market is trending up or down. As a result, you would buy more shares of a stock when the stock price is lower and fewer shares when the price is higher.

The table below shows an example of an investor buying $1,000 of a stock each quarter for one year.

Example of Dollar Cost Averaging
Stock Price  Invested Amount  Number of Shares
$50 $1,000 20
$70 $1,000 14
$40 $1,000 25
$25 $1,000 40

From the table above, we can see that more shares were purchased as the stock price fell, even though the same amount was invested each quarter. Here are the results of the investment:

  • Total amount invested = $4,000
  • Total number of shares bought = 99
  • Average share price = $46.25 or ($50 + $70 + $40 + $25 = $185) and $185 ÷ 4 = $46.25

The average price paid for the stock is lower than the initial price due to the down market. So, if the stock rebounds back to $50, the investor would have a gain of $3.75 or 8% or ($50 - $46.25) = $3.75 and ($3.75 ÷ $46.25 = .08 x 100 = 8%).

As a result, dollar cost averaging can boost returns in the long run if the market rebounds.

Rebalance Your Portfolio

You can change the balance of your holdings when you notice prices falling. You then rebalance your holdings or return your asset allocation to its original targets.

For example, if your target balance is 60% stocks and 40% bonds, your stock portion would decrease in a recession if the stock market declined, while your bond portion would increase.

Let's say that you started with a 60% equity and 40% bond allocation for a total investment of $10,000:

  • Stock portfolio value: $6,000 (60% of your portfolio)
  • Bond portfolio value: $4,000 (40% of your portfolio)

The stock market declines while the bond market increases, changing your allocation to the following:

  • Stock portfolio value: $4,500 (45% of your portfolio)
  • Bond portfolio value: $5,500 (55% of your portfolio)

To rebalance, you'd sell $1,500 of your bond portfolio and add that sum to your equity portfolio, which would bring your portfolio back to $6,000 in equities and $4,000 in bonds. Conversely, when you rebalance during an expansionary phase, you'll sell bonds and buy stocks to return to your target allocation.

Keep a Long-Term View

If you're buying stocks or stock mutual funds, likely, you won't need to withdraw from your account(s) for at least five years to ten years. For that reason, you shouldn't worry too much about short-term market changes.

However, if you need to access the funds sooner, such as to pay for your child's college tuition in the next year or two, you'd have to allocate enough money into bonds or cash leading up to the first year of college. In other words, you don't want to be withdrawing money from your equity portfolio when the stock market is down since it can deplete your savings.

Setting money aside for the first few years of retirement, college, or an emergency fund can provide you with cash when you need it, which helps you avoid dealing with market fluctuations.

Don’t Discard Your Strategy During a Recession

Stock prices might be down, but that doesn't mean you need to change the way you invest. This thought process applies to long-term investors, short-term investors, and retirees.

Note

Recessions are not declared until after many factors are analyzed. If you plan to sell right before one hits, you're more likely to miss it and lose money.

Long-Term Investors

If you're regularly adding funds to a long-term account, such as a 401(k) or IRA, don't stop during a recession. If you place most of your money in stocks, don't "chase performance" and sell out of them. They may be falling in price while bonds are rising in price. If that is the case, you could lose more money than if you were to stay in stocks. If you have chosen your stocks and funds with care, you will end up with more than you started with. Stay the course. 

Short-Term Investors and Retirees

Although you may be uncomfortable during a bear market, don't be tempted to sell your stocks or stock mutual funds at a loss. If you need income right away, it would be best to have money set aside in cash and bonds before the downturn. That way, you can withdraw from your cash while you wait for stock prices to recover.

Take on as Much Risk as Your Tolerance Allows

If you want to make good use of a market correction during a recession, try not to buy more stocks than you would during better times. If your risk tolerance allows you to accept a moderate asset allocation of 65% stocks and 35% bonds, you should keep that target, no matter what the market is doing.

Investing Before and During a Recession

It's easy to go wrong during a recession if you forget or don't understand how certain investments perform during a downturn and how they are related.

Note

The stock market looks ahead, and economic reports are reviews of the past.

Stock prices often fall months before a recession begins, which also means that they often bounce back up before the recession is declared over. You can miss an entire downturn if you only follow the news. That is why it is vital to know the signs of a recession and recovery and how assets perform during those periods:

  • Stocks: Prices for stocks tend to fall before the downturn begins and almost always before a recession is called. If you're trying to make use of lower prices, you'll likely benefit most if you buy before the recession starts or during its early phase. Also, stocks that pay cash dividends can provide income, which can help offset some market losses in your portfolio.
  • Bonds: Prices for bonds tend to rise during a recession. The Federal Reserve (the Fed) stimulates the economy by lowering interest rates and purchasing Treasury bonds.
  • Cash/deposit accounts: Since interest rates fall from the Fed’s actions, they tend to do so on deposit accounts as well. However, cash and insured accounts are free from market risk, unlike bonds and stocks.
  • Real estate: Home prices tend to increase when the economy is growing and decline during recessions. Owning a rental property can provide owners with a steady monthly income from tenants even in recessionary periods. However, real estate markets can decline, as was the case during the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 and the resulting Great Recession.
  • Gold: Most investors see gold as a haven. The price of gold often rises as markets plunge. Investors begin buying stocks again when things are looking up and sell their gold. That pulls gold prices back down again in another mass sell-off.

Note

Timing the market is when investors try to pick the bottom or lowest price for a stock with the goal of outperforming the overall market. However, studies have shown that unless it's timed perfectly, market timing doesn't work, while dollar-cost averaging is a much better long-term strategy.

Risks vs. Gains of Investing in a Recession

Stocks, stock mutual funds, and ETFs are risky during an expansion. They are even more so during a recession. It helps to compare the gains and risks of buying stocks during a downturn.

Gains

Before and early in a recession, stock prices often fall, making it a good time to buy. If you're one who continues to dollar-cost average into your 401(k) plan, IRA, or other investment accounts, buying as stock prices fall pays off in the long run.

Risks

Timing the market and trying to buy when prices are low or beginning to recover is risky. You can still face lots of volatility, even if the market seems to have fully recovered. This is called a "bear market trap." You can get caught up in the optimism of the moment, only to see another fall in prices after the short-term rise.

The Bottom Line

Certain investments have performed in similar ways during recessions of the past. However, no one can predict what will happen in the market in the near term. Stock prices can suffer a large fall over one month, then rise again the next month, only to fall again a month later.

Since no one can predict what the stock market will do and how people will react in the short term, it's wise to commit to your investment strategy during a market downturn so you can participate in the recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Should I Invest During a Recession?

Taking a long-term view can help you ride out bear markets. Strategies like dollar-cost averaging involve investing the same dollar amount, whether the market is rising or falling. As a result, you lower your average cost, and when the economy and market rebound, you'll earn more in the long run.

What Should I Buy in Recession?

Buying stocks for the long term can help, especially ones that pay cash dividends. Also, bonds can provide some degree of safety, while real estate can provide rental income.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Beginners’ Guide to Asset Allocation, Diversification, and Rebalancing."

  2. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Financial Navigating in the Current Economy: Ten Things To Consider Before You Make Investing Decisions."

  3. Morningstar. "Here's Why You Should Rebalance (Again)."

  4. American International Group, Inc. "What Do Volatile Markets Mean for Your Retirement?," Pages 1-3.

  5. Congressional Research Service (CRS). "Introduction to U.S. Economy: Housing Market," Pages 1-2.

  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Gold Prices During and After the Great Recession," Pages 2-3.

  7. Charles Schwab. "Does Market Timing Work?"

  8. San Bernardino County. "Market Timing."

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