As the National Football League heads back to work this week, count on everyone from coaches to TV’s color commentators to hammer home the virtues of “situational football.” That’s the strategy of game-management tactics determined by where a team is on the field, on the scoreboard and on the clock.
While few of us will ever grind out glory on the gridiron before tens of thousands of cheering (or jeering) fans, “playing the situation” is just as important for individual investors as it is for a team setting its sights on the Super Bowl.
Football teams select different plays depending on how much time is left in the game, whether or not they’ve got the lead and where they are on down, distance and field position. The same is true in “situational investing”: Trading strategies change depending on an investor’s economic circumstances, stage of life and risk tolerance.
For example, football’s “Four Minute Offense” is similar to the situation faced by an investor nearing retirement. The NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi (no relation to Super Bowl trophy namesake Vince) describes this as “the offense’s ability to keep the ball late in the game without sending the defense back on the field to hold a lead.”
(The better-known “Two Minute Drill” — where a Brett Favre or Tim Tebow goes for broke to win the game in the waning seconds — is not a “situation” I’d recommend that any investor choose, although sometimes in life and football, you do have to play catch-up with not a lot of time to spare.)
At the risk of descending into gridiron geekdom, here are five key objectives of a team’s “Four-Minute Offense”:
1. Put your team in a good position to hold a lead. Stay in rhythm by running the ball and using basic, high-percentage, passes.
2. Keep making first downs. If you don’t, you wind up having to give the ball back.
3. Control the clock. You have to stay disciplined and avoid “clock-stoppers” like incomplete passes or going out of bounds.
4. Protect the football. The “Four Minute Offense” isn’t the time for untested trick plays (like this 2009 Washington Redskins “fake field goal” acclaimed by the blogosphere as the “Worst NFL trick play ever”).
5. Play to your strengths. Conventional Wisdom says play it safe, but the most successful teams never let up near the end of games.
Situational investing for individuals nearing retirement age is similar in principle:
1. Stay on Offense with A Well-Diversified Portfolio. If you’re an investor in your pre-retirement 50s or early 60s who has amassed a sizable portfolio, kudos on putting yourself in a good position to win. But now is not the time to put the defense on the field: A diversified portfolio is your best offense.
There are nearly as many ways to design a diversified portfolio as there are investors, but all include some mixture of asset classes including, but not limited to: cash, stocks, real estate, government and corporate bonds, mutual funds, exchange-traded products (ETPs), precious metals, etc. InvestorPlace contributor Richard Young offers some great tips for a diversified portfolio here.
2. Use Income Stocks to “Move the Ball Downfield.” Don’t underestimate the value of “Dividend Achiever” stocks that have increased dividends in each of the past 10 years like: Abbott Labs (NYSE:ABT), Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM), Chubb (NYSE:CHB), Harris (NYSE:HRS), Monsanto (NYSE:MON) and Norfolk Southern (NYSE:NSC).
3. Control the Clock. A shorter time horizon affects your investment strategy. The Great Recession taught us the critical role of cash and government bonds. But loading up on these defensive plays alone is playing not to lose — seldom the best strategy either in sports or investing.
While “target date funds” — pre-packaged portfolios based on your planned retirement age — sound ideal, inflation can turn these risk-avoidance strategies into a drive killer. InvestorPlace Editor Jeff Reeves offers a better gameplan for making sure your retirement funds last a long time.
4. Protect Your Nest Egg. Football coaches who can’t resist aggressive, low-percentage plays in the late stages of must-win games illustrate why “NFL” also means “not for long.” The same wisdom holds true for investors nearing retirement. This is no time for “trick plays” like flavor-of-the month ETFs, junk bonds, complicated commodities contracts, etc.
Depending on your risk tolerance, it might make sense to pare back your stock holdings to 40% to 50% of your portfolio. If you’re worried about inflation, consider fixed-yield Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPs).
5. Play Your Own Game. Just as NFL teams take different approaches to their “Four Minute Offense” depending on the head coach’s preferences and the team’s personnel mix, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for all investors facing retirement.
So, seek knowledge, welcome good advice, but decide for yourself what’s best for you. Reassess where you are now compared to where you want to be at retirement. Then make in-game adjustments to protect your wealth, while ensuring that it doesn’t get whittled away by outliving your assets.
And for investors who got sacked during the Great Recession — or lost yardage during the market’s recent fits and starts — there are still some solid plays that can get you back in the game, as InvestorPlace contributor Nancy Zambell says, and ensure that you don’t retire broke.
As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of securities mentioned here.