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Should You Really Panic And Sell Everything Like Cramer Says?

11/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the Today Show Monday morning, Jim Cramer told investors to sell everything and get out of the stock market. A Wall Street friend described this as the market's "Munchian scream moment."

"I thought about this all weekend," Cramer told [the Today Show host]. "I do not want to say these things on TV...Whatever money you may need for the next five years, please take it out of the stock market right now, this week. I do not believe that you should risk those assets in the stock market right now"...

"I don't care where stocks have been, I care where they're going, and I don't want people to get hurt in the market," Cramer told Curry. "I'm worried about unemployment, I'm worried about purchases that you may need. I can't have you at risk in the stock market."

Still, those with the assets -- and the stomach -- to ride out the stock market's ups and down over a five-year period might be best served by holding their nose and holding onto their stocks.

"I think what you have to do, if you can withstand it, is just ride it out," Cramer said.

Why does Cramer think you should get out now? Because the market could decline 20% from here. That's possibly the worst justification for selling medium-term holdings I've ever heard. (The market could ALWAYS decline 20% from here. And it has already declined 35% from the peak.)

For what it's worth, I agree with Jim that the market will likely go lower over the next year. I also agree that people should not have any money in the stock market that they need in the next five years. But "those assets" never should have been in the market in the first place. The stock market is always unpredictable and dangerous over such timeframes, and people should never count on it to fund near-term expenditures.

I also couldn't disagree more with Cramer's recommended strategy of suddenly selling everything now, with the market down 30%+ from the peak. This is market-timing at its worst. Adjusting your long-term investment strategy because you've realized that you can't stomach risk is one thing. Panicking and selling because the global economy and markets are temporarily collapsing is another. After more than a decade of being overvalued, stocks are finally approaching fair value, and, time and again, emotional selling based on market conditions has been shown to be a terrible investment strategy.

For those with horizons of a decade or more, moreover, the current crash is actually good news. If you're saving for retirement, you will do best if stocks crater like this and then stay down for a decade. The dividend-reinvestment will make you buy more shares at lower prices, and when the market does eventually recover, your gains will be compounded.

If Cramer really doesn't "want people to get hurt," he should stop telling them to try to pick stocks and time the market and just gradually invest in a globally diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds. That won't eliminate risk (because nothing will). But it's by far the smartest investment strategy for the vast majority of people who watch the Today Show.