Stock Market Volatility and Your Retirement Funds: How Did TSP Investors React Last Week?

A rational person could read recent financial headlines and conclude that the end of wealth accumulation was at hand. A credit crunch, falling housing prices, falling stock prices and general panic seemed to be in the air. How did TSP investors react? Did they bail out of their TSP stock funds? Here are the statistics that reflect the actions of your fellow investors.

Most readers have money in the Thrift Savings Plan and many readers watch the daily performance of their TSP funds.

That can be a dangerous habit. Some readers undoubtedly try to time the market by selling their TSP stock funds just before they take a dive and buying back their shares just before they head back up. That plan sounds simple. In practice, it is probably about the same as heading back to Vegas for one more chance to win back the money you lost the last time you tried to win money there.

Unfortunately, as we have pointed out before, TSP investors have behaved like many stock market investors. They buy high and sell low. When the market takes a big dip, some who own TSP stocks decide it is time to sell and move their money into safer assets–usually the G fund. That is not a guess; there is plenty of statistical evidence to demonstrate that TSP investors have been moved to sell their retirement assets after watching the stock market go down (See, for example, “Your TSP Stocks Dropped in February: Did You Learn Anything?“)

But, while federal employees are generally not skilled in the art of investing in the stock market, they are generally intelligent, well-educated people and can learn quickly–especially when not learning can cost a great deal of money.

This month, the stock market has been on a roller coaster ride. Headlines in financial articles have been screaming about triple digit losses for the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Other articles portray Americans losing their homes because of rising rates with adjustable mortgages. Foreign stocks followed a similar pattern with major concerns about funds losing large amounts of money as a result of a credit crunch and losses in the housing market. The I fund was down for six of the nine trading days so far in August.

With all the panic and fear spreading through some quarters of the markets, one might expect that federal employees would again be cashing in their TSP funds and loading up on the super-safe G fund to ride out the storm that was (and still is) enveloping the market.

But that didn’t happen. There were investors who took money out of the TSP stock funds. But, by way of comparison, way back on March 5th, 2007, TSP investors took $1.7 billion out of the three TSP equity funds (the C fund, the S fund and the I fund) in one day. The TSP folks processed 34,000 interfund transfers in that one day.

The reason is simple. The stock market was falling fast. Investors panicked. The I fund dropped 21 cents on March 1st. It went down another 28 cents on March 2nd. It fell another 41 cents on Monday, March 5th. Obviously, many TSP investors saw their retirement plans swiftly disappearing along with their TSP fund balance and they decided to save what was left of their money and put it into the bond funds.

Despite the turmoil, and the rash of redemptions, the I fund, as an example, closed out the month of February at $22.55. But, at the end of March, it was still up to $23.13. Despite the panic, the hoopla, and the dramatic drops, the I fund finished up ahead of where it was at the end of February.

This time around, TSP investors did not act as quickly to sell their stock funds. Last week, according to the experts at the TSP, a total of $822 million was transferred out of the three equity funds. While $822 million is a big number, it amounts to less than 1% (.69%) of these funds. Moreover, the largest daily number of interfund transfers last week was about 16,000.

So what does the future hold? As always, no one knows. But keep in mind that volatility such as we have seen recently is not that unusual as a bull market advances in its later stages. The stock market hit a high of 14,000 (the Dow Jones Industrial Average) in mid-July. A 10% drop is not unusual with a market that has been going up for awhile. The current bull market started back in 2002. It has gone down at least 10% only once since that time (in 2003). It is likely that there will be a drop to a lower level, based on what often happens with stock markets in the past, but the valuation of stock prices are becoming more attractive.

Those TSP investors who decide to try and time the market to buy at low prices and sell at high prices are apt to find the task is not easy–just as it is not easy to beat the odds for the gaming tables in Las Vegas or Atlantic City or Biloxi. Generally, those investors that diversify their portfolios and keep a balance between stocks and bonds will do better over the long run than those that try to buy and sell in anticipation of a market rising or falling. (See, for example, “The Emotional Investor”)

But it’s your retirement money and your future and your decision as to how to invest your hard-earned dollars. Enjoy the ride.


About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47