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Brexit referendum: What it means for Americans' retirement, investments

Global markets were rocked by the news that U.K. residents voted to leave the EU — the so-called Brexit referendum. But what does it mean for you?
/ Source: TODAY

The Brexit referendum — the decision by Britons to withdraw from the European Union — wiped $2.08 trillion off global equity markets on Friday — the biggest daily loss ever — according to Standard & Poor's Dow Jones Indices.

But what does this mean for individual investors and consumers in the U.S.?

Expect continued volatility.

Markets will be unsteady in coming weeks and months as the U.K. (and the world) wraps its arms around what this divorce really means; Prime Minister David Cameron takes his leave; and other European countries weigh the same option.

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“We are likely to have a knee-jerk reaction in the short term,” said Chris Alderson, head of international equity for T. Rowe Price. “Divorce proceedings will be very protracted, but there will be no need to panic.”

This means it may be a good time to review your portfolio or the mix in your retirement plan and make sure it’s set up in a way to help meet your long-term goals. If it’s not, decide yourself — or with the help of a financial adviser — what sort of tweaks you need to make to get there. But there’s no need to make any rash decisions.

Making no move is often the best move.

As they might say it in the U.K.: Keep calm and carry on. Jeanne Thompson, vice president of thought leadership at Fidelity Investments, notes that history shows it’s often wisest to stay the course during periods of great market turmoil.

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Fidelity research tracked 401(k) investors who — in the fourth quarter of 2008 and first quarter of 2009 — moved their money out of stocks and into bonds or cash, and never went back. Over time, their accounts grew by 27 percent. But 401(k) investors who kept their stock investments throughout the 2008-2009 period saw their account balances grow by 157 percent.

“Market volatility, with swings both up and down, is to be expected — the typical retirement saver will see multiple market swings in their career,” she said. “If you want to take some sort of action during periods of volatility, this can be a good opportunity to make sure your asset allocation is on track, and that you are contributing enough to take advantage of a company match."

Savers will suffer; borrowers will benefit.

As for the rest of your financial life, the results of Brexit will be a mixed bag. On Friday, the Federal Reserve issued a statement noting that it is “prepared to provide dollar liquidity…to address pressures in global funding markets, which could have adverse implications for the U.S. economy.”

Translation: If the economy suffers short term due to this move, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's team is prepared to help. It also means interest rates are likely to stay low for a longer period of time rather than rising as they were expected to do later this year. For savers, that means continued anemic returns on your savings, money market accounts and certificates of deposit.

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For borrowers, the news — along with the fact that yields on U.S. Treasury plunged Friday — means you’ve got another window to lock in low, long-term rates. In fact, rates on the 30-year-mortgage are once again heading toward record lows. So if you’ve got a rate of 4 percent or above, the time to shop and lock in your refi is now.