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Made You Look

Greg Spears

I LOOKED UP OUR investment account balance recently. It’s something I’d avoided doing for months. My wife, the voice of reason, said we might bounce a check if we didn’t know how much was in the money market fund. Confession: I don’t balance our checkbook manually.

I waited to log on until after the Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up 14% in October, its best month since 1976. I don’t know why the bear lost its grip on the Dow last month, but it seemed like an opportune time to see how much damage had been done.

We’d lost nearly as much as we’d paid for our house in 1997, yet our balance was higher than when I retired in July 2020. We’d essentially surrendered the last 18 months of gains—the gains that the market had given us in 2020 and 2021.

One of my jobs as a senior editor at Vanguard Group was to make a down market seem palatable to the firm’s investors. When stocks fell sharply, a senior executive would invariably call me from the back of a taxi to suggest that we do a “market story.”

By this, he didn’t mean we should write a piece that began, “Sell everything while you can still get out alive.” No, we needed a story that would calmly assure investors that we’ve experienced much worse drops before and the market had always recovered and gone on to new all-time highs—eventually.

This has the virtue of being true. But it’s not always easy to be the voice of reason when Mr. Market is having a panic attack. When stocks collapsed in September 2008, I’d written just such a story of reassurance. It was ready to be published on Vanguard’s website. It said Congress had passed a large rescue package to shore up the stock market and the economy—a story I’d written in advance of passage.

Incredibly, the House voted the package down while I was watching it live on C-SPAN. On a second monitor, I watched in shock as the stock market jumped off a cliff in reaction. The Dow plunged 777 points—then the largest points drop in its 112-year history.

At that moment, I left a voice-mail message for a colleague saying something like, “Don’t elevate that story, the House has just done something incredibly stupid, and the market’s falling down an elevator shaft.” She told me later that it sounded like I was going to cry.

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I didn’t, but it did feel like an out-of-body experience, like falling off a ladder and thinking, “This can’t really be happening.” Yet the lesson I draw from that whole dismal experience is the market did eventually recover and I made a lot of money.

By spring 2009, I’d decided that stocks were irrationally beaten down, so I shifted my 401(k) balance to 100% stocks. That’s my version of capitulation.

In 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, the great English economist John Maynard Keynes said that the economic dislocations of his age were only temporary. The central message Keynes conveyed was one of optimism.

“This is only a temporary phase of maladjustment,” he wrote in an essay in which he tried to predict what life would be like for his grandchildren. “All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is.”

Was he right? Yes. Between 1930 and 2010, per-person income grew 5.6 times higher in the U.S., after adjusting for inflation, according to Nobel-prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller. An exceptionally long-lived stock investor would have done even better. A $100 investment in the U.S. market in 1930 would be worth $29,101 today, even after factoring in inflation.

With each downturn, it becomes easier for me to believe that this too shall pass. Yet it still bothers me to see my account balance lower than it was previously. Intellectually, I know this must happen to me as a retired investor. But psychologically, I feel like I’d rather not see it.

Greg Spears is HumbleDollar’s deputy editor. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter for the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. After leaving journalism, Greg spent 23 years as a senior editor at Vanguard Group on the 401(k) side, where he implored people to save more for retirement. He currently teaches behavioral economics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as an adjunct professor. The subject helps shed light on why so many Americans save less than they might. Greg is also a Certified Financial Planner certificate holder. Check out his earlier articles.

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Philip Stein
Philip Stein
12 days ago

No doubt, some people, after seeing a significant decline in their portfolio value, fear that the stock market will collapse and they’ll lose everything.

We should acknowledge that the US stock market has always recovered after significant declines — always. And you don’t need to collect a lot of data to prove this, simple logic will do: If there ever was a time when stocks didn’t recover after a bear market, we wouldn’t be talking about stocks today.

Ormode
Ormode
13 days ago

Over the past year, I am slightly up. Such is the power of conservative blue-chip stocks.
I still think my stocks are overpriced for what they are, and expect that my portfolio may fall maybe 10% eventually.

Boomerst3
Boomerst3
11 days ago
Reply to  Ormode

What stocks do you own? Most are down this year

R Quinn
R Quinn
13 days ago

Ten years from now we will be reading about the people who can’t retire because they “lost their savings” in the crash of 2022 – just like the crash of 2008.

Philip Stein
Philip Stein
12 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Richard, shouldn’t we acknowledge that those people who couldn’t retire because they lost their savings in the crash of 2022 were likely the ones who bailed out and never returned to the stock market?

Their inability to retire was probably due more to panic selling than the bear market per se.

R Quinn
R Quinn
13 days ago

I’m with you Greg, Keep Calm and Carry On. But it sure isn’t easy. I simply can’t resist checking my investments each day if not more often. It serves no useful purpose, I’m not selling or buying, but I’m compelled to do it.

Maybe it’s that the investments have been accumulated over forty years and along the way I had goals to achieve and sustain and those goals seem at risk. Maybe a decades long recovery won’t help me much.

The crazy thing is that even after eight RMDs my account is still higher than it was the day I retired, but I tend to focus on the $200,000 less than last January. Human nature I guess.

Last edited 13 days ago by R Quinn
Edmund Marsh
Edmund Marsh
13 days ago

Greg, your last paragraph echoes my thoughts about a market drop. Thank you for today’s reminder about our eventual recovery—and for those past encouragements at Vanguard.

Cody Mercurio
Cody Mercurio
13 days ago

I realize investors complain about the value of their portfolios dropping 25%-30% in value over the past year, but I was thinking (now we are in trouble), about how that value drop may relate to a portfolio that was totally sold-out on the day the
S & P 500 hit their all time high ($4796.56 on Jan 3, 22).
If I had sold my outside the IRA umbrella portfolio on the day the S & P 500 hit their all time high it would trigger at least a 15% federal income tax and another 9% NY State income tax. Hence, the amount of dollars I would keep in my wallet would just about equal the value of the bear market drop in value on paper. 

Boomerst3
Boomerst3
11 days ago
Reply to  Cody Mercurio

You mean Capital gains tax, don’t you? Not income tax

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