Investors face some hard choices into the end of the first quarter

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on March 16, 2020 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

A year ago, the most painful move was the most profitable. It hurt in March 2020 to exercise time-tested prudence by using history's steepest selloff, in a fog of pandemic uncertainty, to add exposure to stocks.

With the S&P 500 rushing to an unprecedented 34% drop in five weeks as bond prices surged, the market was serving up an urgent yet hard-to-accept invitation to shift money from bonds into stocks.

This column the week the S&P 500 bottomed noted it was a rare moment, one of only a few times the traditional balanced stock-bond portfolio had dropped 20% from a high. And history showed at the time that adding equities in such moments had always proved a good bet, averaging better than a 20% return for the standard 60% stocks/40% bonds portfolio.

Since then, this 60/40 mix, as reflected in the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund, has delivered a total return of more than 40%, about quadruple its long-term annual average.

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