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My Third Hanging

Tanvir Alam

IN THE COEN BROTHERS’ excellent movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, James Franco’s character is set for a good old-fashioned Wild West hanging. Franco appears to accept his fate, but there’s a poor slob next to him with a noose around his neck crying inconsolably. Franco quizzically turns to him and says, “First time?”

I cracked up when I watched that scene. It has since become a famous meme. I feel like uttering the same phrase when younger friends, coworkers and mentees come to me for personal finance advice. They’re shaken, scared and horrified by this year’s stock and bond market performance.

Frankly, they should be, because most have only been investing since 2010 or so. This is the first really ugly market they’ve seen. We’re in bear market territory for the S&P 500—defined as a 20% decline from the high—and we’ve seen a 16% decline for 10-year Treasury notes in 2022. According to market commentator Charlie Bilello, a 60% stock-40% bond portfolio is on pace for its worst year since 1937.

As market veterans know, when the market declines, the doomsayers come out in droves. My favorite is “Dr. Doom” himself, economist Nouriel Roubini, who deftly predicted the 2008 great financial crisis. Roubini now predicts a 40% U.S. stock decline, accompanied by a long, ugly recession, according to a Bloomberg headline.

Of course, he’s joined by many other doomsters. Among them are cult investor hero Michael Burry, who predicts the “mother of all crashes,” according to the New York Post; the relentlessly self-promoting Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad, Poor Dad fame; and even eminent investors like Jeremy Grantham, who predicts the final catastrophic end of a “super bubble.” Any day now, someone will call this the death of equities, CNBC will trot out a “Markets in Turmoil” segment and a strange-looking, messiah-like man will be holding up a sign that reads, “Repent! The end is nigh!”

Welcome to the execution. First time?

Personally, this is my third. Let me be clear: I’m defining a market execution as a long, painful, drawnout crash. This is unlike the 2018 China tariffs crash or even the 2020 COVID-19 crash. Both market declines were followed by quick recoveries. Such V-shaped market bottoms have conditioned investors to buy the dip.

There’s been no quick recovery in 2022, however. There are, instead, bear market rallies that fizzle. Buying the dip has made you feel like a dupe. This bear market is a grinder, and that’s incredibly scary for a new generation of investors.

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When I first started investing in the early 2000s, the 2000-02 internet stock crash slashed the S&P 500 by 49%. This was followed by the 2007-09 crash that had a drawdown of 57%.

These were extraordinarily painful periods, but investors were richly rewarded if they hung on. In between, though, they had to deal with a market execution. Market veterans will recognize this pattern. The market grinds lower, the doomsayers come out, a historian will announce the end of the American empire, every rally will be called a “suckers’ rally,” your neighbor will tell you that the market is rigged, and you’ll be tempted to sell it all just to make the emotional pain stop.

The only advice I have for you is to tune it out. Don’t check your statements. Don’t read The Wall Street Journal. Don’t listen to bloviating investors on CNBC, except for maybe good ol’ uncle Warren Buffett, who famously quipped, “I don’t pay any attention to what economists say, frankly… can you name me one super-wealthy economist that’s ever made money out of securities? No.”

“Buy low” is so very easy to say and so very hard to do. As chartist Walter Deemer says, “When the time comes to buy, you won’t want to.” I’ve been buying 100% stocks every month, just like I always do, and I feel like a fool every month.

I have no idea when it will stop. I have no idea if Grantham, after a decade of predicting a great crash, will finally get one. He may and, if it comes, I’ll be putting every single dollar I can into stocks. After all, I’ve already been hanged. Twice.

Tanvir Alam has been practicing corporate law for more than two decades, but you shouldn’t hold that against him. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his patient wife and two skeptical teenagers. Tanvir is interested in personal finance and travel, and is trying desperately to become a runner. Follow him on Twitter @Docket75, read his blog at StealthWealthBlog.com and check out his earlier articles.

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steve abramowitz
steve abramowitz
2 months ago

Thanks so much for the informative and lively review of the recent history of the elusive market cycle. I got a lot out of it.

Michael Crosby
Michael Crosby
2 months ago

Nice article, but this is one where I’m agreeing with the Doomers. We can’t predict the future, the United States is strong, but there’s just so much that’s going on in the world that doesn’t bode well. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m in agreement with Mr Burry.

Philip Stein
Philip Stein
2 months ago
Reply to  Michael Crosby

Think about the course of the 20th century: World War I, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, the inflationary 70s, and so on.

Yet despite all this bad news, the U.S. stock market marched on to new highs. It wasn’t always smooth sailing but, ultimately, long-term investors did well.

Today’s problems seem to pale in comparison.

Mark Caspary
Mark Caspary
2 months ago

Warren Buffett also famously said when investors are fearful I get greedy and when investors get greedy I get fearful. He must be on a big buying spree right now! Adding to all his positions, Apple, Chevron, Coke. It’s always paid off for him!

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
2 months ago

No doubt this has been a bad year. The worst thing to do now is sell equities because you are locking in your losses. This is like closing the barn door after all the cows have got out.

Purple Rain
Purple Rain
2 months ago

Spot on. Doomsday stock market predictions get more clicks, though.

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