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What investors should do now

With Wall Street imploding and stocks hitting bear territory, this volatile market is more confusing than ever. Here's how to navigate through the chaos.

By Jon Birger, senior writer
Last Updated: October 1, 2008: 10:22 AM ET

(Fortune Magazine) -- It's time to panic.

Okay, now that we've got your attention, let's be clear: We're exaggerating - at least a little. We don't think the financial system is on the verge of collapse. But the complacency exhibited by many market pundits in the wake of the most wrenching episode in modern financial history is sufficiently shocking that it almost demands some scare-tactic response.

By our count some 300 articles were published last month telling investors "don't panic" or "not to panic." Urging calm is one thing. But too much soothing talk implies that there are no lessons to be learned. What's the use of a vertigo-inducing bout of market turbulence if the only conclusion is "stay the course"?

At the very least, it's a good reminder to take a hard look at your financial plans and to reevaluate how much market risk you can truly withstand in your portfolio. Because - don't panic! - this might not be completely over.

Richard Bernstein, the chief investment strategist at Merrill Lynch, worries that investors still don't appreciate the scope of the credit crisis.

"It's weird - the canary in the mineshaft has fallen over, and now everyone thinks there's a problem with canaries," says Bernstein, who, despite sounding the alarm about a global credit bubble as far back as 2006, could find himself out of a job after Merrill's forced sale to Bank of America. (Too bad Bernstein's Merrill bosses didn't heed his warnings.)

In Bernstein's eyes, the canary is the U.S. mortgage market, but the silent killer of loose credit was an international epidemic. "I don't perceive that most investors fully appreciate either the depth of the credit bubble or how broad-reaching it was in terms of emerging markets and hedge funds and commodities and all these other inflated asset classes that were dependent on easy credit," he says.

If consumers suddenly can't refinance their mortgages and credit cards and if more corporations can't issue bonds or tap lines of bank credit, their ability to weather any slowdown will be diminished. "The fundamentals are still extremely scary," says star financial-sector analyst (and recent Fortune cover subject) Meredith Whitney of Oppenheimer & Co. "It all gets down to how much liquidity will be created for consumers and corporations, and at the moment there's still less and less by the hour."

Here's another reason to be concerned: The professionals managing your money haven't gotten this market right. Consider that at the market low on Sept. 17, only five diversified U.S. equity mutual funds - out of a universe of 9,100 - had positive total returns for the year, according to Morningstar. FIVE! Even after the market rebounded, there were still only three funds with returns this year of 10% or better: Parnassus Small-Cap, Heartland Value Plus, and Forester Value.

If you haven't heard of any of those funds, that's the point. The investing world's best and brightest appear to be just as confused as the rest of us. Like Bill Miller. His streak of beating the S&P 500 now a distant memory, the Legg Mason Value Trust manager is down 35% this year. CGM Focus's Ken Heebner, whom Fortune dubbed "America's hottest investor" in June, is down 16%, while FPA Capital's Bob Rodriguez ("the best fund manager of our time," according to our sister magazine Money) is down 3%.

So how did the three 10%-plus returners beat the odds? One common thread is that they all stayed away from bank stocks. Beyond that, each went his own way. Thomas Forester, who runs his eponymous $20 million fund out of his study in suburban Chicago, made a successful bet on consumer staples - names like Anheuser-Busch, J.C. Penney, and Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500). Brad Evans, manager of Heartland Value Plus, got into and out of oil stocks at the right times.

And Jerome Dodson, the 65-year-old manager of Parnassus Small-Cap, was king of the contrarians, earning his double-digit returns with an assist from the unlikeliest of sectors: homebuilders.

"Every one of my analysts said, 'Don't do it,'" Dodson says of his early-year decision to buy the builders. But Dodson was convinced that the companies' stocks would bounce back long before their plummeting earnings did. He wound up taking sizable positions in Pulte Homes and Toll Brothers, which are up 40% and 17%, respectively this year. Dodson himself admits he got a little lucky.

You can't count on hitting that kind of jackpot. But by taking a hard look at your portfolio, you can minimize your losses and prepare yourself to take advantage of new opportunities. And this is one time when following simple financial-planning tips could be worth more to your bottom line than picking the right stocks or funds. So let's start with some strategy before we get to our specific investment recommendations.

Take some tax losses. If you buy and sell stocks in a taxable portfolio, it's likely that you have some holdings trading for well below what you originally paid. Our advice: Sell your losers pronto and book the capital losses.

Those losses can be carried forward from one tax year to the next (and the next and the next) and thus used to offset future capital gains whenever the market rebounds. Not only that, but Boston accountant Gale Raphael of Raphael & Raphael points out that taxpayers can deduct up to $3,000 in capital losses from ordinary income. That amounts to a tax savings of $990 a year to someone in the 33% tax bracket.

What if you think your losers are about to rebound? IRS rules prevent you from buying them back for 30 days. But if you can't wait, try using the proceeds from your tax-loss sale to purchase stocks similar to the ones you're selling.

If you take a loss on United States Steel, for instance, replace it with rival steelmaker Nucor (NUE, Fortune 500). John Maloney, who manages high-net-worth accounts with M&R Capital in New York, says the IRS rules even allow you to take a tax loss on, say, Schlumberger, and replace it right away with an oil-services exchange-traded fund in which Schlumberger is a major holding. Says Maloney: "It won't trigger an objection unless it's materially the same security."

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