Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but when it comes to the stock market, the only thing to fear is the “unknown.” As much as people like to say, “I saw that crisis coming,” or “I knew the bubble was going to burst,” the reality is these assertions are often embellished, overstated, and/or misplaced.
How many people saw these events coming?
- 1987 – Black Monday
- Iraqi War
- Thai Baht Currency Crisis
- Long-Term Capital Management Collapse & Bailout
- 9/11 Terrorist Attack
- Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy / Bear Stearns Bailout
- Flash Crash
- U.S. Debt Downgrade
- Arab Spring
- Sequestration Cuts
- Cyprus Financial Crisis
- Federal Reserve (QE1, QE2, QE3, Operation Twist, etc.)
Sure, there will always be a prescient few who may actually get it right and profit from their crystal balls, but to assume you are smart enough to predict these events with any consistent accuracy is likely reckless. Even for the smartest and brightest minds, uncertainty and doubt surrounding such mega-events leads to inaction or paralysis. If profiting in advance of these negative outcomes was so easy, you probably would be basking in the sun on your personal private island…and not reading this article.
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Coming to grips with the existence of a never-ending series of future negative financial shocks is the price of doing business in the stock market, if you want to become a successful long-term investor. The fact of the matter is with 7 billion people living on a planet orbiting the sun at 67,000 mph, the law of large numbers tells us there will be many unpredictable events caused either by pure chance or poor human decisions. As the great financial crisis of 2008-2009 proved, there will always be populations of stupid or ignorant people who will purposely or inadvertently cause significant damage to economies around the world.
Fortunately, the power of democracy (see Spreading the Seeds of Democracy) and the benefits of capitalism have dramatically increased the standards of living for hundreds of millions of people. Despite horrific outcomes and unthinkable atrocities perpetrated throughout history, global GDP and living standards continue to positively march forward and upward. For example, consider in my limited lifespan, I have seen the introduction of VCRs, microwave ovens, mobile phones, and the internet, while experiencing amazing milestones like the eradication of smallpox, the sequencing of the human genome, and landing space exploration vehicles on Mars, among many other unimaginable achievements.
Despite amazing advancements, many investors are paralyzed into inaction out of fear of a harmful outcome. If I received a penny for every negative prediction I read or heard about over my 20+ years of investing, I would be happily retired. The stock market is never immune from adverse events, but chances are a geopolitical war in Ukraine/Iraq; accelerated Federal Reserve rate tightening; China real estate bubble; Argentinian debt default; or other current, worrisome headline is unlikely to be the cause of the next -20%+ bear market. History shows us that fear of the unknown is more rational than the fear of the known. If you can’t come to grips with fear itself, I fear your long-term results will lead to a scary retirement.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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