How to Handle Stock Market Corrections

Seeing your portfolio dip can be nerve-wracking, but sometimes necessary

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 6, 2018 in New York City. Following Monday's over 1000 point drop, the Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly fell over 500 points in morning trading.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Stock market corrections are scary but normal. In fact, they're a sign of a healthy market in most cases. A stock market correction is usually defined as a drop in stock prices of 10% or greater from their most recent peak. If prices drop by 20% or more, it's called a bear market.

Frequency of Market Corrections

Since 1920, the S&P 500 Index has—on average—recorded a 5% pullback three times a year, a 10% correction once every 16 months, and a 20% plunge every seven years, according to Fidelity Investments. Corrections have lasted an average of 43 days.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic rocked the stock market, sending it into another bear market. But within five months, the S&P 500 had made a full recovery and was setting new record highs.

How to Deal With a Correction

Anticipating a correction can be stressful. First, resist the urge to "time the market." Although it's possible to make some short-term money trading the ups and downs of the market, strategies like swing trading rarely work for building long-term wealth. 

Most people lose by trying to move their money around to participate in the ups and avoid the downs. This is a documented behavior studied by academics around the world. The field of study is called behavioral finance.

Data show that not only do most people lack the discipline to stick to a winning investing playbook in correcting markets, but they also tend to transact at the wrong times, causing even larger losses.

Professional financial planners build portfolios based on science vs. behavioral biases. When we build a portfolio, we expect that one out of every four calendar quarters will have a negative return. We control the magnitude of the negative returns by selecting a mix of investments that have either more potential for upside or less potential for high returns and also less risk—a process called diversification.

If you are going to invest in the market, it is best to understand that stock market corrections are going to occur, and it’s often best to just ride them out.

Resist the urge to trade and profit from corrections. Follow the old Wall Street cliche—never catch a falling knife.

The Dow Jones Leading Up to 2018

In the five years before 2018, the Dow Jones Industrial Average nearly doubled without any meaningful pullback. For each of those years, a significant number of analysts called for a correction or even a recession. These predictions have caused investors to pull out of the market too early and lose the impressive gains they could have enjoyed if they didn't try to predict when the inevitable would come. This is true of individual investors as well as professionals.

Control the Magnitude of Corrections

You can control the magnitude of the market corrections you might experience by carefully selecting the mix of investments you own.

Understand the level of investment risk associated with an investment. For example, in an investment with high risk, there is the potential you will lose all of your money. With slightly less risk, you might experience a drop of 30% to 50%, but you won’t lose it all. That’s a big difference in risk.

Next, understand how to mix these different types of investments to reduce the risk to your portfolio as a whole.

Keeping your investment portfolio balanced is part of what's known as the asset allocation process.

It's important to reduce your exposure to significant market corrections as you near retirement. And once retired, you need to structure your investments so that when market corrections occur, you are not forced to sell market-related investments. Instead, you use the safer portion of your portfolio to support spending needs during these times. 

Then, learn about the risk-return relationship of investing. The potential for higher returns always comes with additional risk. The higher and faster the price of the stock market rises, the less the potential for future high returns. Just after a stock market correction, or bear market, the potential for future high returns in the market is greater. In 2017, cryptocurrency became the craze. It had a return of more than 1,000% that year and retail investors scrambled to get in while professional traders stayed away. Why? Because the professionals know that when something goes up that much, it will eventually have a severe correction.

Lastly, if you don’t want to face the potential to experience a market correction, it is probably best to avoid investing in the stock market altogether. Instead, stick with safe investments. But safe investments have what we call opportunity cost—you miss the opportunity to set yourself up for the future life you envision for yourself and your family. The key is to strike a good balance.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance, or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.