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Guys, the stock market is up!
Yay? Or should we just scream?
I can’t make up my mind.
Let’s face it, things are scary. Millions of people have gotten sick, hundreds of thousands have died worldwide and the economy nose-dived.
And yet, the stock market is … not so bad. Which is also scary. I’m already wearing a mask when I stroll close to another human being. Now, when I look at the stock market, I want to add one for my eyes. And some earplugs so that I can’t hear my own scream!
This moment reminds me of the time I watched two men take down a tree. One scampered up the trunk with no visible safety equipment and a chain saw roaring. The man on the ground saw the horrified expression on my face and said, “If you’re gonna get scared, don’t look.”
You may wonder, why do I find good stock prices in bad times so scary? Because they just don’t make sense. Bad news used to drive stocks down. Long ago — actually, only in January — the news seemed plenty bad, with domestic political deadlock and strife, trade wars, international tensions and, of course, climate change. And even so, markets rose. I started to wonder back then whether the fundamentals of markets had changed and they had actually begun to thrive on bad news.
But how to test a theory that the markets now loved bad news, or at least shrugged it off? My suggestion was simple: See what would happen if the bad news got even worse.
Well, be careful what you wish for! What seemed like bad news back then turned out to be an afternoon in the hammock with an icy adult beverage compared with what has happened since.
Now we’re dealing with a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 people. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. People fighting over whether they should wear masks. And the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, with the outpouring of anguish and anger as a result. It’s just too much, all at once.
We are living in a disaster movie, people. And as Sigourney Weaver’s character shouts in “Galaxy Quest,” “This episode was badly written!”
This winter, the markets reacted just as a sane person might expect: They plummeted. From Feb. 19 through March 23, the S&P 500 plunged 34 percent. It was the sort of market that makes you want to invest in Depends.
And yet, while stocks have gyrated like the drunk guy at the party who insists he really does know how to dance to K-pop, that deep dive became a monster rally that has brought the markets back within shouting range of where they were before the coronavirus outbreak blew up. And that’s with the murder hornets.
Why is this happening, when so much of the news is still terrible enough to justify an Edvard Munch scream? Some certifiably smart people have said it has to do with the Federal Reserve pumping money into the financial system. That might even be true.
Based on what people in the White House say publicly, what’s been happening in the world isn’t weird at all. In June, the director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, said the United States would soon be seeing a “V-shaped recovery,” which means it would be roaring back from the plunge. Another White House economic adviser, Kevin Hassett, had a similar thought, telling Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business that “the recovery has begun.”
As it happens, Mr. Hassett is famous for his predictions; he was one of the authors of a book predicting that the Dow Jones industrial average would shoot up to 36,000. That book, unfortunately, came out in 1999, which was about the time the dot-com bubble burst. And Dow 36,000 still hasn’t happened yet. But it might! That’s the beauty of punditry!
I had hoped to talk with Mr. Hassett about his work. But a few days after I requested an interview, he announced that he would be leaving the White House, and a spokeswoman told me he wouldn’t be talking to me.
Fine. Lots of people have gone to great lengths not to talk with me. (High school was rough.) But I couldn’t help but feel a little ghosted. So I’m making sense of the world on my own, and have to wonder: What will it take to shake investors up? Godzilla? The asteroid? The asteroid, but made out of murder hornets?
No, wait! I didn’t mean it! Fates, if you’re listening, NO ASTEROID, OK?
At this point, couldn’t we all use a break?
Remember, as our pessimistic friends tell us, things can always get worse. I hate to bring this up, but there is an election coming.
In preparation, here’s a rule for investing that I learned from one of the financial giants of our age, John Bogle, who brought index funds to consumers like us. I confessed to him that my wife and I almost never looked at the performance of our funds because we were too scared.
He said he approved. “Don’t peek! That’s one of my most important rules.” Stocks appreciate in the long run; obsessing over the peaks and valleys does no good.
This is wisdom. “Don’t peek” could be the watchword of our times.
So if you have a 401(k) or I.R.A. and didn’t have the foresight to switch out of stocks before these crazy times began, you’re not likely to make things better by selling or switching now.
Better to ride things out, at least until we get through this mess. Practice social distancing from your portfolio.
But how? That extra mask for the eyes is a start. Instead of shredding your quarterly mutual fund report after you’ve looked at it, shred it first and forget about it. If all else fails, there’s always hopes and prayers.
Until the recovery, whenever that will be, and whatever its shape, I’ll be sitting on my 401(k) and not peeking. Except maybe up at the sky.
For the asteroid.
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