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How worried should I be?
That’s a question financial people get a lot when the market is as unstable as it has been over the past several weeks. Actually, it’s a question we ask ourselves in those environments.
Having both asked and answered that question several times recently, let me share some of the answers I’ve come up with.
Down 500 points? No big deal.
The stock market has hit some major downdrafts lately, including days when the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 500 points.
Inevitably when this happens, the media post pictures of Wall Street traders tearing their hair out. That’s okay. Baldness is an occupational hazard, and they are compensated well enough to afford Rogaine.
An important thing to remember about those traders is that they have large amounts of money at stake on very short-term market positions. Outside of the financial sector, though, most investors are trying to save for the long term, for retirement. This means accumulating wealth over 20, 30, or 40 years. Have you ever seen what a 3 percent loss (roughly the equivalent of a 500-point drop at today’s level of the Dow) looks like on a 40-year chart of stock market returns? It is barely a ripple, something you wouldn’t even describe as a speed bump.
Bigger problems than market downturns
For long-term investors, then, most day-to-day or even month-to-month fluctuations can be shrugged off. What is more disturbing is that, for all its ups and downs, the stock market has made very little progress over a long period of time.
Since the beginning of this century, the S&P 500 has gained just over 34 percent, or a compound average of 1.90 percent a year. Throw in a couple percent a year for dividends and you would roughly double that on a total return basis. But returns in the neighborhood of 4 percent a year are far below the growth assumptions people make when they are doing retirement planning. This has been going on for more than 15 years now, which is a significant chunk of anyone’s retirement time horizon.
Add to that the low yields on bonds over the past several years and the even lower rates on savings accounts and other bank deposits, and you are looking at long periods of sub-standard returns for most U.S. investors. This is a bigger problem than any short-term market downturn.
Economic reality vs. perception
Markets are one thing; the economy is another. While the U.S. market was going through all the angst of late August, one very positive piece of economic news went almost unnoticed. The official estimate of U.S. gross domestic product was revised upward to 3.7 percent, a substantial improvement over the original estimate of 2.3 percent, and significantly better than the first quarter’s rate of 0.6 percent.
The contrast between the stock market and the underlying economy is even greater in China. For all the attention the dramatic plunge in Chinese stocks has gotten, what is less reported is that their economy is continuing to grow, albeit at a slower rate than in recent years. Squeezing some of the speculation out of the Chinese stock market should be good for investment there in the long run.
Protecting your number one asset
When the investment environment gets worrisome, your attention should turn to your number one asset. This probably is not your portfolio or even your house. It is your job.
Keeping that stream of income coming — and growing it through career advancement if possible — can help pick up the slack when investments are doing little to build your wealth. Keep your skills sharp, and look to add value at your job to a degree that would make it difficult for your employer to do without you.
Control what you can control
Besides attending to your career, the other thing you can control when investment results disappoint is your spending. Lower returns may mean you have to lower your spending expectations, both now and in retirement. Doing this on your own terms is much less painful than having austerity forced on you when you can’t pay your debts. Just ask the Greeks.
One way to think of all this is that you should be concerned rather than worried. Concern means that the situation is serious enough to merit some attention, particularly with regard to safeguarding your career, tightening up your spending habits, and being alert for investment opportunities. Acting out of concern is distinct from merely worrying, which usually involves unproductive activities like checking the market every five minutes or lying awake at night worrying about decisions that are already behind you.
This notion of acting constructively toward things you can control is perhaps the best cure for a worrisome environment. Once you’ve done all you can do, it is easier to stop worrying and turn your attention to other aspects of your life while the stock market’s drama plays itself out.