"Stay the course."

"Stick with your asset allocation plan."

"Focus on what you can control."

Those are worthwhile pieces of advice during market corrections like the one we're currently experiencing. But they can sound a little clichéd. How do they know if the course you're on is the right course? What if you don't know what their asset allocations are, let alone whether they are reasonable? And which factors do you actually control, and how can you control them?

To help investors address those questions and cope with the market volatility in a concrete and productive way, we've outlined some worthwhile jobs to tackle during a downturn.

some worthwhile jobs to tackle during a downturn

Not only will knocking off those jobs give you more confidence in your plan – or at least focus your attention on the steps you need to take in order to get it in better shape – but it will also serve to distract your attention from activities that aren't helpful, like compulsively checking your portfolio balance or the stock market’s minute-by-minute fluctuations.

1: Check your stock/bond mix

As markets have trended up for the better part of a decade, it has been easy to let equity winners ride. The net effect of that inattention is that untended portfolios have become progressively more equity-heavy and volatile: A portfolio that was 60% stock/40% bond in 2009 could be more than 80% stock today. Thus, a key job for investors attempting to see if their portfolios are too risky is to assess their asset allocations.

Morningstar's X-Ray functionality, accessible via Portfolio Manager, enables you to see how your portfolio is positioned today, taking into account the underlying holdings of the open-end funds, ETFs and LICs in your portfolio.

People who are retired or getting closer to retirement should consider their spending requirements when deciding a sensible asset allocation framework. Don't forget to check cash reserves. For investors who are still working, three to six months' worth of living expenses in cash is a good baseline. High-income earners, contractors, or those with more specialised careers should aim for a year or more of living expenses in cash reserves.

If you use a financial planner or adviser to manage your money, now is a good time to ask them what your stock/bond mix is.

2. See if your plan is on track

Many investors naturally wonder if an investment downturn is going to be so severe that it derails their plans. Will retirement – which seemed so close just a few short weeks ago – need to wait? Are there any ways to make a save?

The gold standard for getting a check on the viability your plan is to sit down with a financial planner. There are also plenty of online tools available for DIYers aiming to get their arms around whether their retirement plans are on track. calculators require you to plug in some return assumptions.

To keep your plan on track on an ongoing basis, an investment policy statement is invaluable. You can customise yours to suit your own needs, but at a minimum, your document should state your investment goals; date, amount, duration, ongoing contribution amounts, basic asset allocation framework, and what qualities you're seeking in your investments.

Retirees and pre-retirees should also maintain a separate retirement policy statement that documents their withdrawal-rate system, among other key retirement planning factors.

3. Check up on investment quality

After you've assessed your portfolio's asset allocation and viability, take a closer look at the quality of the investments you've chosen to populate your plan. Rather than being blinded by short-term gains or losses, try to focus instead on the big picture.

Do your holdings align with the qualities you've laid out in your investment policy statement? Is your portfolio as streamlined as it can be, or can you identify redundancies? Do your holdings earn strong ratings from Morningstar's analyst team – Gold, Silver or Bronze ratings for funds and exchange-traded funds, ratings of three or better for stocks?

4. Check up on your spending

Investors are often encouraged to focus on what they can control when the markets are uncertain and volatile. At the top of the "In Your Control" list should be your savings and spending rates: How much you are able to invest on an ongoing basis will be by far the biggest determinant of when and whether you reach your financial goals.

A strong market and enlarged portfolio balances can stoke a "wealth effect," making it more comfortable to spend than you otherwise would. If you haven't done a budget recently, there are a host of online tools and apps for tracking your expenses on an ongoing basis. Alternatively, you can create a budget the old-fashioned way, using an Excel spreadsheet or other budget worksheet.

5. Check up on investment costs

Since we're on the topic of expenses, do you know what you're paying for your portfolio on an ongoing basis? Most investors don't, even though managing investment costs is one of the best ways to improve your take-home return.

6. Check up on tax efficiency

In a related vein, are you managing your portfolio with an eye toward reducing the drag of taxes? Are you taking maximum advantage of your tax-sheltered options?


More from Morningstar

• Property slowdown may cap earnings for building suppliers

• 7 costly myths of sustainable investing

• Make better investment decisions with Morningstar Premium | Free 4-week trial


Christine Benz is director of personal finance for Morningstar, based in Chicago.

© 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved. Neither Morningstar, its affiliates, nor the content providers guarantee the data or content contained herein to be accurate, complete or timely nor will they have any liability for its use or distribution. This information is to be used for personal, non-commercial purposes only. No reproduction is permitted without the prior written consent of Morningstar. Any general advice or 'class service' have been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892), or its Authorised Representatives, and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. Please refer to our Financial Services Guide (FSG) for more information at www.morningstar.com.au/s/fsg.pdf. Our publications, ratings and products should be viewed as an additional investment resource, not as your sole source of information. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product's future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a licensed financial adviser. Some material is copyright and published under licence from ASX Operations Pty Ltd ACN 004 523 782 ("ASXO"). The article is current as at date of publication.