Just Another Panic Monday

In wake of crisis, financial planners say save and hold your breath.

Sept. 15, 2008— -- It might be easier said than done, but in the wake of this weekend's financial services crisis, planners are all advising the same thing: Don't Panic!

Wall Street may have seen the writing on the wall weeks ago, but much of Main Street woke up this morning to fears that their nest eggs might be in danger from a broader market meltdown.

Driven by news that two of the country's most iconic investment houses had fallen, investors Monday swiftly began selling, and the market took an early tumble.

That selling is just what you shouldn't do, financial planners told ABCNews.com.

"We're telling our clients to stay the course today," said Bruce Tucker, a principal at Sterling Financial Planning. "It's difficult to tell clients to hang in there when things look rough, but the good news is we might get to the bottom sooner, rather than later."

Over the weekend, Lehman Brothers, suffering from as much as $60 billion in bad real estate holdings, declared bankruptcy, and Bank of America said it would buy Merrill Lynch, the largest U.S. brokerage, in a $50 billion all-stock transaction. In addition, the huge insurer said it may have to borrow up to $50 billion from the Fed to stay afloat.

Some of the country's largest mutual funds include Lehman and AIG in their portfolios, and while thousands of Americans will directly feel the pinch of the crisis, many more will be indirectly affected.

Though investors can expect to take a hit, analysts told ABCNews.com that, on balance, the news could have been much worse.

"If you're in the financial industry, there's no question, it's Armageddon, it's a history-making day," said ABC News' financial contributor Mellody Hobson. "If you're a regular individual, you should rest assured that 98 percent of banks in this country are totally and completely sound. There's nothing to worry about in terms of your individual account."

Since investment bank Bear Stearns' surprising collapse in March was followed by a string of smaller banks failing across the country -- all on the back of years of myopic investing in sub-prime mortgages -- Wall Street and small-time investors alike have gotten jittery.

If your money was wrapped up in Lehman, Merrill, Washington Mutual or AIG, it is too late to do anything about it, analysts said.

"If you were well positioned last Thursday or Friday, you don't want to do anything today. The overreaction to this kind of news is typical," said Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network.

But aside from not panicking, there are additional steps you can take to protect yourself against additional losses.

Start with saving, said Garrett.

"Keep saving," she said. "Instead of investing, [you should] save. Make sure you've got cash reserves. Don't dip into your 401k for a loan. Now is the time to be really aggressive about paying off your debt. Pay off those credit cards, pay off that consumer debt.

"Americans spend more when times are good because things are strong and healthy, but then when things get bad, they don't have that security blanket to protect them," she added.

It was debt, billions in sub-prime mortgages, that ruined Lehman Brothers, and it's debt on a much smaller scale that is ruining many American families, Garrett said.

Buying stable financial products, like CDs, and investing in diverse mutual funds that include industrial stocks, instead of just financial service stocks, are other relatively safe options, planners said.

"Folks with strong, well diversified portfolios probably won't be down more than 8 to 10 percent, year to date. That's not a disaster. That's not 40 or 50 percent. Hold on and ride through it. Make the big buys once things have settled," said Tucker.

"We don't know if this is going to be 30 days or three months. Investors should look to bring asset allegations back to equity goals and set their own personal goals and time horizons," he said.

Garrett recommended putting your savings into a 401k, Roth IRA or other traditional IRA now, rather than waiting until tax season, as many people do.

While today's news may remind some investors of Black Monday, when, on Oct. 19, 1987, the market dropped 22.68 percent in one day, analysts said today's drop would not be nearly as precipitous.

"This is scary in the short term," said Garrett. "It is a lot like the dot-com bubble, the savings-and-loan scandal or Enron. This is going to keep unfolding. All sorts of questions about ethics and fraud are going to emerge, and the financial services are going to continue to have real problems."