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Twenty Years Ago

Jonathan Clements

ON SEPT. 11, 2001, I spent an hour and a half standing on a crowded subway train two blocks from the World Trade Center. During that time, both towers collapsed. No smoke came shooting down the subway tunnel. The earth didn’t noticeably shake. There were no deafening noises. Instead, we were just another subway car packed with disgruntled passengers, muttering about the perils of public transport.

It was only when the train backed up to Penn Station in midtown Manhattan that we learned what had happened that day. “They’ve hit the World Trade Center,” a policeman was shouting. “They’ve hit the Pentagon. And there are eight planes still unaccounted for. Everybody needs to evacuate the station. Now.”

In the days that followed, people took to saying, “The world will never be the same again.” Some folks bought gas masks. Many loaded up on basic provisions. Families settled on a safe place to meet, should another terrorist attack occur.

Sept. 11th was a terrible and terrifying tragedy that played out on television for all the world to see—and we should never forget the loss of life that day. By contrast, the resulting stock market plunge seems of little import. Still, there was indeed a large market reaction, one that offers three lessons for today’s investor:

1. Extraordinary market declines are anything but. Every decade or so, we get a big stock market swoon. All feel catastrophic at the time, and yet—in retrospect—they seem almost routine. Think back over the past half-century and what’s happened to the S&P 500.

We had 1973-74’s grueling 48% drop triggered by the OPEC oil embargo and escalating inflation, 1980-82’s 27% bear market wrought by a double-dip recession, 1987’s stunning 34% crash, 1990’s 20% decline following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, 2000-02’s 49% meltdown caused by the dot-com bust and 9/11 terrorist attacks, 2007-09’s global financial crisis with its 57% bloodbath, and 2020’s 34% coronavirus crash.

Each of these market collapses had a different cause and played out in a different way. Yet the smart way to behave was the same every time: Investors needed to grit their teeth, rebalance back to their portfolio’s target stock percentage and, if at all possible, shovel any extra cash into broadly diversified stock funds.

2. The talking heads are clueless. While many warned that stocks were overpriced in 2000, nobody predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A few foresaw the dangers in the mortgage-bond market in the mid-2000s, but the magnitude of the financial fallout eluded almost everybody. Nobody predicted 2020’s pandemic.

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In each case, the stock market’s collapse was driven by news—which, by definition, isn’t known ahead of time. The next big market decline will also be driven by news. I won’t forecast it and nor will you, which is why we should stop trying.

I have enough for retirement not because I’ve ever managed to predict a stock market decline. Rather, I have enough, in part, because I stood my ground when stocks collapsed and, indeed, I merrily bought more. We win the game not by anticipating market declines, but by knowing how to react when they happen.

3. Stock prices go to extremes. As John Lim explained in a recent blog post, share prices should reflect their intrinsic value, which is the present value of future dividends. What if a global pandemic causes all stocks to stop paying all dividends for the next two years? As John explains, stocks should—in theory—fall just 6.1% because that’s the drop in intrinsic value.

But, of course, share prices fell far more than that in 2020, and also in the other market declines mentioned above. Therein lies the opportunity for level-headed investors. I believe markets are reasonably efficient, meaning it’s awfully hard to identify stocks that’ll outperform the market averages. That’s why I’m entirely invested in index funds.

But while mispriced individual stocks are hard to find, every so often investors collectively panic and drive down the overall market more than the fundamentals justify. I can’t tell you when that’ll next happen. But when it does, I’ll be buying—and you should, too. This may sound like the cardinal sin of market-timing, but it isn’t. I’m not encouraging you to forecast the next big decline or to sit on a big pile of cash in anticipation of a market crash. But there will indeed be many more declines, and riches await those who keep their heads and seize the opportunity.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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Philip Stein
Philip Stein
2 months ago

To appreciate the resilience of the U.S. stock market, let’s extend Jonathan’s analysis to the entire 20th century.

During that time, Americans suffered World War I; the 1918 Influenza Pandemic which killed about 50 million souls globally; the Great Depression; World War II with an estimated 70 million casualties worldwide; the Korean War; the war in Vietnam; and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. All this before the inflationary 70s.

During this time, the U.S. stock market climbed higher, albeit with many fits and starts.

I try to remember these events from the 20th century to, as Jonathan reminds us, have the discipline to maintain my stock market position and weather the storm during market swoons.

SCao
SCao
2 months ago

NYC is my hometown in America. Still remember vividly the burning and the smell of the air in the city 20 years ago. America is a resilience and strong country, with people from many heritages. As long as we keep and further progress on our system & with health population growth, our market and economy will keep growing, with road bumps here and there from time to time. As Warren Buffet said, “Never bet against America”.

Gary Palmer
Gary Palmer
2 months ago

Outstanding comments today Jonathan, and spoken in just the right tone.
I sold everything in Jan ’09. I simply couldn’t stand it anymore. I was petrified for my family’s life savings. I believed the crash was more than just another headline event, we were lending money to the biggest banks in America, and AIG, who had guaranteed so many of those bad loans, was virtually bankrupt. I bought back in a few months later, but my losses exceeded 500k. I had over 13,000 shares and warrants of BofA, owing to having worked there for 15 years. The stock went from $55 to $5.75 and the warrants to zero. That was a hard lesson, which I would never do again, but I’m hoping we never come that close to a total financial collapse again.

Nicholas Clements
Nicholas Clements
2 months ago

From your Mum: Your 9/11 article took me back to that terrible day knowing you were somewhere very close to this tragedy. 

Thank you for the exceptional financial information you and your contributors provide online. This is a marvelous service available to all those who have a computer and want to improve their lives by planning and saving.
  
Humble dollar is getting better and better, and I’m proud of your leadership.

parkslope
parkslope
2 months ago

I was also on a subway that passed by the WTC about the time that the north tower was hit. I learned about the attack just before I went in to teach my management class. I will never forget the look on the face of one of my students whose father was working in one of the towers (he didn’t make it). After talking with some students I called my wife and told her that I would make it back to our home in Brooklyn as soon as possible. Because the subways were down and traffic was closed into Manhattan, I decided to walk the 18 miles from 242nd Street and Broadway in Riverdale to Brooklyn. Fortunately, the subways were operating again by the time I got to 168 Street. My first view of the devastation was from the subway as it went over the Manhattan Bridge. When I got home, there were ashes in our front yard and we had to keep the windows closed for several days because of the smell.

Ormode
Ormode
2 months ago

Research is your friend.
Let’s look at 2020. The price of Dow, Inc briefly dropped to under 24 a share in March, while they were paying a $2.80 dividend. Was the dividend in danger? If you did a little research, you would have found out that all their factories were still operating, and sales were pretty good. They were making a lot of plastics and packaging, and selling it. Sure, they had some pandemic expenses, but nothing major.
So why did the stock fall 50%? In a panic, everyone sells everything, especially if they need the liquidity. Investors with cash can buy and make almost guaranteed money.

Mark Royer
Mark Royer
2 months ago

All good points, Jonathan. The market timer radio hosts will continue to claim they predicted all the downturns you mentioned (and many more than ever happened) but I would not trust them to predict future market collapses.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
2 months ago

Jonathan,
Thanks for a thoughtful article on this somber day. We all have our stark memories of that day. Our eldest son had just started college at Columbia a few weeks prior to 9/11. We weren’t able to connect with him till about 6 PM that day. I knew he was miles away form the WTCs, but it was still an enormous relief when we heard his voice. I think about him, his brother, our nieces and nephews, and all their friends who became adults around 9/11, and have lived grown up with wars, terrorism, the great recession, and now pandemic. I’m heartened by what a resillent group they are. They’ve grown up, started careers, families, and become part of their communities. It gives me hope for our communities, country, and, yes, the markets.

Last edited 2 months ago by Rick Connor

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