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When volatility strikes, the thought of selling assets that have held up well to buy into areas of the market that have been pummeled can be unpleasant, to say the least. But the decision not to rebalance is one of the worst things your clients can do.

Why? Because asset allocation is the most important factor in determining an investor’s financial success over time, and rebalancing is required to keep that allocation in sync with their goals and risk tolerance. Clients with balanced portfolios who don’t rebalance after a market crash will have seen their exposure to equities decrease and their allocation to conservative fixed income investments rise accordingly. That under-allocation to equities will put them at a distinct performance disadvantage when the market eventually recovers.

Three Approaches to Rebalancing

1.    Time interval

Research shows that the time interval a client chooses for rebalancing — quarterly, annually, etc.— doesn’t meaningfully affect their long-term return potential. Given the costs of rebalancing — which include taxes, transaction costs and the cost of an advisor’s time — choosing an annual or semi-annual timeframe may make sense. Be careful of triggering short-term capital gains tax for investments held less than a year and consider opportunities for tax loss harvesting.

2.    Threshold

With this approach, a portfolio is monitored continually and rebalanced any time its allocation drifts by a predetermined percentage (e.g., 5 percent). In volatile times, this could mean rebalancing frequently within a short time period, which could significantly increase fees.

3.    Hybrid

A hybrid strategy marries the two approaches by calling for rebalancing at regular time intervals only when the allocation has drifted more than a specified percentage away from the target.

Adding new money to an under-represented asset class (possibly through dollar cost averaging) in order to regain the target allocation is one way to reduce or eliminate the cost of rebalancing. In addition, rebalancing by selling appreciated securities in tax-advantaged accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s, can help reduce tax consequences. Any tax-loss harvesting would of course take place in taxable accounts.

Adjusting Targeted Allocations After a Crash

In discussing rebalancing with clients after a correction, it’s important to leave room for adjustments to their plan as needed. Clients falling prey to recency bias after the last bull market may have been overly optimistic about the amount of volatility they thought they could handle.

Anthony Mirenda, president of Front Range Wealth Management in Greenwood Village, Colorado, explains, “When evaluating how to rebalance after a market correction, it comes down to reassessing the client’s goals and strategies, because that’s what should drive asset allocation, not the other way around.”

Mirenda adds, “We look at whether the client is comfortable with how their portfolio performed during the market event. It’s difficult to assess how a client will feel about a correction until it happens. Before that, it’s all theoretical.”

The Rewards of Trusting the Plan

When rebalancing is done in a disciplined way, the client’s risk is managed to a volatility level they can stomach. Sticking with a well-thought-out plan builds their confidence, enabling them to avoid panicked selling in a market crash.

Importantly, rebalancing effectively doesn’t mean you have to try to time the market. No one knows when the market will hit bottom, but it doesn’t matter. It’s okay to rebalance on the way down. Your client still gains the advantage of increasing their exposure to stocks when valuations are cheaper, providing a better launchpad for performance as markets recover.