Over the last three or four days, I’ve received a bunch of emails from readers asking me why I’m not talking breathlessly about the chaos at Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and IndyMac. I’ve read dozens of long explanations of why this is disastrous and why it’s the worst thing people have ever seen, and I’ve read many, many people shouting that they should completely get out of all investments right now and put their cash in a little green box buried in their back yard (or some similar crazy scheme).
Here’s my take: I think there’s almost nothing to worry about, and if you’re actively selling any broad investments right now, you’re actually making a giant mistake.
Here are five reasons why you shouldn’t be panicking right now.
One: Panics happen every few years
Right now, we’re having panics in the banking and housing sectors. A few years ago, corporate accounting was destroying everything. Remember the tech sector collapse of half a decade ago? The savings and loan failures before that?
These booms and busts happen for one reason and one reason alone: most investors are sheep. They follow whatever has been hot lately, and they run away whenever there’s a bad sign. These processes are rarely rational – in the 1630s, people bet their entire life fortunes on tulips.
It took only a glance at housing prices over the last decade or so to see that there was a big bubble going on. This bubble turned out to be mixed in with the banking industry which was funding this bubble. Now we’re seeing that bubble collapse. In a few years, when all of those ARMs adjust, people will be running around yelling “PANIC” about some other sector.
Two: The talking heads shouting “PANIC!” make money from “PANIC!”
If you run out right now and sell your stock, guess who makes money? That’s right, brokers and fund managers. These people want churn. They want you to buy and sell so they can make profit on the buying and the selling. The people who are on CNBC and TheStreet.com shouting “PANIC!”
If I was a broker or an investment manager and I knew that if I shouted “PANIC!” I could make myself a mint, I’d be tempted to shout “PANIC!” I probably wouldn’t do that because it would actually not help my clients, but there are other philosophies out there. Some believe that alerting their clients to “PANIC!” can help them avoid losses. Others could actually care less about the clients and just want to profit.
There’s big money to be made in “PANIC!”
Three: Stocks are not short term investments
Unless you’re day trading (and thus making an effective career out of very short term movements), stock investments should never be short term investments. The stock market is extremely volatile over the short term – annual losses of 20% or more in stock investments are somewhat regular occurrences.
So why invest in stocks? Over the long run, the gains exceed the losses over the stock market as a whole. Here’s a quote from David Swenson, the author of the excellent book Unconventional Success:
To the extent that history provides a guide, the long-term returns for stocks encourage investors to own stocks. Jeremy Siegel’s two hundred years of data show U.S. stocks earning 8.3 percent per annum, while Roger Ibbotson’s seventy-eight years of data show stocks earning 10.4 percent per annum. No other asset class possesses such an impressive record of long-term performance.
The stock market returns very well on average. The only problem is that it’s an average of some very nice positive numbers and some very painful negative numbers – that’s the nature of an open market.
Why should one believe the stock market is going to go up in value? THIS IS THE END! Stocks will continue to go up in value over the long term for one simple reason: worker productivity. Companies over time will earn more money per employee because each employee is able to produce more value. As long as humans are innovative creatures, coming up with new technologies and ideas, then companies that implement those ideas will increase in value.
Four: Down markets are never a time to sell
At some point, the stock market will return to its previous level – there has never been a twenty year period of loss in the overall stock market.
Since the stock market is down this year, and we believe that the stock market will eventually match the previous high, now is not the time to sell. Now is the time to buy.
Let’s look at it visually using the S&P 500 from about 2000 to about 2007:
Obviously, it’s great to sell at the top – you’ll make a killing. The problem is that one never knows exactly where the top is. The market will start to drift downward and many people will think it a normal fluctuation. After a while, the talking heads on CNBC and other financial papers will begin to notice that it’s going downward and start shouting “BEAR! BEAR!” to get people to “SELL! SELL!” so they can make a profit on transaction costs. Most people still don’t move right away – it takes a little while for the “panic” to build.
Eventually (as marked above), it becomes conventional wisdom that things are disastrous – that’s where we’re at now, well into the down trend. Now, if we believe that at some point in the future things will eventually return to their original level and we can clearly see that things are way down from their original level … why would you sell? Instead, it looks like a time to buy to me.
Five: If this event is making you worried about losing everything, then you’re not appropriately diversified.
My last point is for those people who have a ton of money in the damaged sectors right now. If you’re afraid that you’re going to be losing “everything” in this down situation, then the problem isn’t the stock market. It’s your investment strategy.
Diversification is what saves you from a bubble blowing up in a particular sector. Many advisors suggest having 5% of your total assets or less in any one sector simply to a void this. That way, even if one sector loses everything, you lose at most 5% of your money – a 20% drop in one sector means only an overall 1% loss for you.
In other words, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket and you won’t panic quite so much when a basket falls to the floor.
Throughout all of this tumult, I’ve lost a fair amount of money in my retirement account. Right now, I’m contributing significantly more money per week than I was three months ago. And I feel fine. I hope you do, too.