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No smiles on Wall Street today. Along with the drop in the Dow, the S&P dropped more that five percent. It's down 45 percent from its peak last year. This wild and mostly downward volatility is making a lot of people queasy about their retirement accounts. Still, investment advisers say now is not the time to sell, as NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD: Marianne Boswell is a manager at a medical software company outside Boston. At lunch in her office cafeteria, she says, like many Americans, she's been watching her savings dwindle.

Ms. MARIANNE BOSWELL (Company Manager): I think I've lost maybe $80,000 last time I looked.

ARNOLD: Boswell says that's about a quarter of her entire retirement portfolio, and that's a big hit. She's 55 years old, and she's a single mom with a 14-year-old son she wants to put through college. For a while, Boswell says she was going online to check her Schwab account pretty often.

Ms. BOSWELL: And the thing that's really disturbing is that Schwab has a tool to project your - how you're going to do with what you currently have saved when you retire. It's a retirement tool. And so I have used that retirement tool to see if I'm on track. And I'd been on track. And the numbers don't work anymore.

ARNOLD: After working and saving her whole life, Boswell had looked forward to having some money to travel when she retires and to be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood where she lives. Now she's wondering if she'll be able to do that.

Ms. BOSWELL: So, what I've basically done is I've stopped looking at my portfolio, and I've stopped playing with the retirement calculators.

ARNOLD: That might sound like sticking your head in the sand. But many top investors say that's probably the best thing for most people to do. They say just think about the stock market like you're driving past a car wreck. Keep going straight ahead and try not to look. Boswell got some encouragement to do that from her financial adviser.

(Soundbite of phone call)

Ms. KATHARINE MANNING (Vice President; Schwab): Good afternoon, Charles Schwab. It's Katharine. May I help you?

ARNOLD: Katharine Manning says back when the Dow first started plummeting down towards a thousand, it seemed like all her 300 clients were calling at once.

Ms. MANNING: All the phones in the branch, nonstop.

ARNOLD: Manning says some got pretty panicky and wondered if they should be selling their stock. A lot of people have been. Investors have pulled billions of dollars out of mutual funds as the market has tanked.

Ms. MANNING: The emotion is just you want to run for the door. You just want the pain to stop, you know. I try to remind clients, volatility does not equal loss.

ARNOLD: That means it's not a loss until you actually sell your stock. And it's probably a really bad time to do that after the market has just fallen off a cliff. Manning says, if you sell, odds are you're going to miss the rally when the market recovers. Still, Manning says, a few clients have sold anyway. She remembers one in particular.

Ms. MANNING: The company where he worked was positioning itself for layoffs. He was well aware of that. And that coupled with what was happening in the market, he just didn't want to worry about the piece that was in the market. And he just got out.

ARNOLD: Manning says that's painful for her to watch because she really believes that people are damaging their life savings by selling stocks right now. But she also says it seems like the panic has passed for most of her clients. They seem to be getting used to the idea of riding out the crash. And if less investors are selling, that makes it easier for the bargain hunters to push the market back up. Manning's seeing some of them too.

Ms. MANNING: I had a gentleman come in who was up at the front. He handed me a check for $10 million. And he said, you are not going to see a buying opportunity, another one like this, in your lifetime. It was sort of - I thought it was a good omen. It lit up the whole office.

ARNOLD: If you want to find out what he was buying and see much more detailed investing advice, you can go to npr.org. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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