Military Financial Experts Warn Against Panic

Stars and Stripes | Travis J. Tritten | October 14, 2008

There's bad news, then more bad news.

The United States and the world have struggled for weeks to get the economic crisis under control as investors cringe and stock values plunge. By week's end, there was still no visible bottom to stock market losses.

But despite the harrowing decline, now is no time for servicemembers feeling economic anxiety to sell or move investments, according to financial specialists in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

"They haven't actually lost anything until they've sold," said Bonnie Lewis, a financial counselor for Marine and Family Services at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. "Right now, you are going to sell it for less than you bought it for."

Financial specialists such as Lewis say they are telling investors the market is cyclical and an increase in investment values will eventually come.

Those who sell or move their investments could miss out on that rebound, she said.

It's uncertain exactly how long the current turmoil will last. A $700 billion bailout package Congress passed earlier this month and the Federal Reserve's half-point interest rate cut last week did little to assuage investor worries as stock markets around the world spiraled down.

"Historically, it is going to last two to three years," Lewis said.

After the terrorist attacks in 2001, the U.S. economy dipped painfully. But the market rebounded in 2003, pushing average stock values up about 20 percent, she said.

Lewis said more commands at Iwakuni are calling to request seminars on finances and the economy, a sign that interest in the financial crisis is growing.

Most bases' family support centers have specialists who give individual or group financial advice. Due to a recently enacted program, every military command is supposed to have a financial advice point of contact.

The military provides financial options under the Thrift Savings Plan. The comprehensive investment and retirement planning program includes an array of purchase options, including large company stocks, foreign stocks and U.S. bonds.

Servicemembers "are more concerned about what's going to happen with their money and wondering, ‘Is it safe for me to get back in, should I invest?' " said Yolanda Jones, a personal financial education specialist at the Fleet and Family Support Center at Sasebo Naval Base in Japan.

The economy has weathered similar economic storms in the past and investors should be patient, Jones said.

"When the economy rights itself, they can watch their savings grow exponentially," she said.

Many servicemembers have said they don't fear the economic crisis and are using the opportunity to buy low-priced investments, some even comparing the market to casino gambling.

But those who invest during a turbulent time should do so wisely, said Jim McDaniel, a personal financial trainer at the Airman and Family Readiness Center at Yokota Air Base in Japan.

"It depends on your goals, your risk aversion and your time horizon," McDaniel said.

For example, investing now with money you want to spend in the near term -- a down payment on a home in the next year or two, for example -- is probably not a good idea, he said.

"You don't know where the stock market is going to be in five years" and extracting your investment for the home down payment might be a money-losing proposition, McDaniel said.

A long-term investment is more likely to yield returns, he said.

Servicemembers can choose to put their money into more risky investments -- small or foreign businesses -- or safer places like U.S. Treasury and corporate bonds, McDaniel said.

Young investors can afford more risk because they have time to recover, but investors near retirement would be wise to begin moving investments to more stable areas, such as bonds, he said.

For now, the short-term outlook on investments is not good. But McDaniel, a lifelong investor, said servicemembers should think in the long term.

"If you can't sleep at night, that is a sign that possibly you shouldn't have been in the stock funds to begin with," he said.