Hold steady and don't let the U.S.-Iran conflict derail your retirement funds, say investors

"Things are different now. The risk of an oil shock today has diminished," analysts agree.
Image: The flag-draped coffins of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and other military officials drive through the streets as mourners pay their respects in Ahvaz, Iran, on Jan. 5, 2020.
The flag-draped coffins of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and other military officials drive through the streets as mourners pay their respects in Ahvaz, Iran, on Jan. 5, 2020.Alireza Mohammadi / ISNA via AP

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By Martha C. White

The ripple effects from the death of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani continued to make geopolitical as well as economic waves around the world in the first full week of 2020. Global markets retreated as President Donald Trump reiterated his threat to target Iranian cultural heritage sites and stated a refusal to pull American troops out of Iraq.

While markets usually drop by as much as 2 percent in the immediate aftermath of a shock such as the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani, the selloff should wind down within a few weeks, said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA.

“The market tends to bottom about 21, 22 calendar days after the event,” he said. “I think this market could drop 5 to 10 percent by the time all is said and done,” he said, although he added that a correction of more than 10 percent remains unlikely.

That said, investing pros say the short-term turmoil is likely to be broad-based. “We would expect that the energy, industrial and consumer discretionary sectors would be the most volatile,” said Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer at Independent Advisor Alliance.

And unfortunately for nervous investors, using history as a guide has its limits. “People are taking historical standards and trying to apply them to the current situation. Things are different now,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group.

The biggest change is a positive one: The risk of an oil shock today has diminished.

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“It’s lower than it was because of the shale revolution and because the U.S. is a producer,” said Scott Ladner, chief investment officer at Horizon Investments. “There’s definitely a bit of a buffer there because the nature of the market has changed. It’s more diverse set of oil producers around the world,” he said.

“American shale oil production has changed significantly,” Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM US LLP, wrote on Friday, noting that U.S. output has risen by roughly 40 percent since 2014. “Given the changing oil supply dynamics, this is the primary reason why energy and commodity markets have been well behaved in the early hours following the airstrike,” he said.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the oil industry stands to reap a windfall, since much of the energy sector is vertically integrated. “If they have to pay more to refine, that’s going to cut into their earnings,” Stovall said.

It also doesn’t mean that the market fallout from a potential oil supply disruption would be limited to energy company stocks. “With energy prices going up, that would adversely affect the cyclical sectors, probably putting some pressure on the basic materials and industrials,” Stovall said, adding that the defense industry is one notable exception.

Likewise, stocks of consumer-facing companies face a mixed outlook in the face of these geopolitical tensions. “Consumer discretionary, as opposed to consumer staples, is a much more cyclical sector,” Zaccarelli said. “To the extent that there’s either a hit to consumer confidence, inflation due to energy costs and or shipping costs, that could lead to a pullback in consumer confidence and/or consumer spending.”

“In the consumer discretionary category, the travel and leisure stocks like cruise lines could be under pressure. Airlines could be affected not only because of the cost of the fuel, but also the nervousness of travelers,” Stovall said.

For investors saving and retirement savers, though, financial advisers urged calm. The risk of trying to time market movements — a speculative activity even the pros often get wrong — is far greater than the risk of a short term dip in returns, they say.

“At this particular point, it’s too early,” Cox said. “Investors should do nothing in terms of trying to front-run what’s going to happen,” he said, because there are so many unknown variables.

By all means, experts say, check your portfolio to make sure your allocations still support your long-term goals, but avoid letting fear guide your investing decisions.

“An average investor is not likely to be equipped to be in the minute-by-minute headlines… especially in an event like this where nobody has an edge,” Ladner said. “Revisit your financial plan [and] make sure your investments are aligned with that,” he advised.

Some say it helps to keep things in perspective. “It is easy to forget that the last decade was not without some jarring moments that seemed at the moment to be devastating,” said Scott Cole, founder and president of Cole Financial Planning and Wealth Management. “Portfolios should be built to withstand geopolitics.”