Like any investment account, rebalancing your 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan is an important part of a successful strategy. Without periodic rebalancing, your asset allocation (the percentage of your account that you distribute between different asset classes, ETFs, and mutual funds) will change over time, causing you to be invested more aggressively - or conservatively - than you originally intended. Although many investors forget to do so, rebalancing your 401(k) or 403(b) is just as important as setting your initial asset allocation to align with your risk tolerance.
How often should you rebalance your 401(k) or 403(b)?
Rebalancing your portfolio is not something you need to do frequently. Generally, once or twice a year may be enough. The rebalancing process will require you to compare your original asset allocation to your current portfolio. If the holdings vary more than a maximum threshold of your choosing, then it may be time to rebalance. For example, if you have a 5% threshold for changes to your target allocation, which includes 65% US equity, you would rebalance during your yearly review if your US equity position was outside the 60% - 70% band.
Why rebalance your portfolio?
As illustrated in the example, the current asset allocation does not match the original. In the example, the US equity portion of the portfolio has grown at a much higher rate than the fixed income and foreign equity holdings. This creates an investment mix that is more heavily weighted in equities.
It may seem counter-intuitive to sell an investment that has been outperforming, but remember: past performance does not indicate future results. During a market correction, the unbalanced portfolio would be exposed to much more risk than an investor may reasonably expect.
To correct this, you would determine which equities should be sold, reinvesting the proceeds in the purchase of additional bonds to restore the original weights of each asset class.
Also read: Everything you wanted to know (and some things you didn't) about your 401(k) plan or 403(b) retirement plan
Before rebalancing, ensure the original asset allocation was appropriate to begin with
As you may realize, there are some pitfalls to self-managing your portfolio. When the market goes down is perhaps the most common point investors decide to enlist the help of a professional. Creating a diversified portfolio that is aligned with your risk tolerance - and stays that way - is a complex and ongoing process. Many busy professionals don't have the time to dedicate to self-education or the interest.
Before you rebalance your portfolio, objectively try to assess your comfort and skill in investment management. For many of us, our employer-sponsored retirement plan is our biggest asset and future nest egg, so it is critical to get it right. If you're not confident that your original asset allocation is the best choice among the options you have within the plan and balanced with your risk comfort, it likely doesn't make sense to rebalance back to this potentially flawed allocation.