Why has everyone suddenly become fearful?

29 06 2011

Jonathan N. Castle, CFP®, ChFC

The economy was in recovery; the bulls were stampeding through Wall Street, and for a few short months we had a general feeling that maybe – just maybe – all would be well with the economic world.  Then things seemed to fall apart – first we had a Tsunami and a potential nuclear disaster in Japan; then President Mubarek of Egypt was ousted, and then we started dropping bombs on Lybia.  To top it off, Greece will probably go bankrupt – if not soon, then certainly at some point in the future, and everyone in the US is wondering if that will be our own future if our brilliant congressional leaders can’t quit their squabbling and decide one way or another on our own budget deficit.  Do we simply raise our own debt ceiling, allowing our government to put us deeper in debt, do we default on some of our debt, or do we cut deeply into some highly sensitive entitlement programs to try and balance the budget?  QE2 is ending, so the Federal gravy train of free money is coming to an end, right?  To top it off, the market has been floundering around – falling one day and rising the next with no clear direction, reminding us of the ever present danger of a sustained bear market that may push all of our retirements back a few more years.

So what happened?  What should you do?

Well – since everyone’s situation is different, I’ll start off with some assumptions.  In my experience, individuals who are generally successful investors have the following characteristics, so I am going to assume that if you are reading this – then you have met the following criteria.  If not – then disregard anything and everything I say.

1)  You have an investment PHILOSOPHY (i.e., set of guiding beliefs and a repeatable strategy) that you believe in enough to stick to through the long term.  You are aware that events that effect financial markets continually happen and are often unpredictible – therefore, your investment PHILOSOPHY provides you guidance on how you build your investment portfolio, and does not change from day to day.  You are also aware that, contrary to what Wall Street and the mass media (which is in their pocket, by the way) constantly advocate – “buy when the market is going to go up, sell when it is going to go down,” is NOT an investment PHILOSOPHY.  It is an investment FANTASY.

2)  You have carefully measured your risk tolerance.  This means that you know EXACTLY how much your portfolio can drop before you even THINK about making any changes to your overall strategy.

3)  You have carefully designed your portfolio to match your risk tolerance.  In other words – if your risk tolerance is such that you can bear a drop of up to 10% in your portfolio – but no more – then you are aware that the market typically will drop 20% or more every 3.5 years, on average.  Therefore – you have designed your portfolio so that 50% or less of your account would be effected by such a drop.  So- if the overall stock market drops 20% – but only about half of your portfolio is in the stock market – with the rest of the portfolio in cash, CD’s, and perhaps short-term bonds  – then you can reasonably assume that a 10% drop in your portfolio would be a likely outcome of such a correction – and would be bearable.  Keep in mind that during extended recessions or financial crises (such as occurred in 2008) that these parameters are often exceeded.  The 2001 crash, on the other hand – did not effect properly diversified portfolios as much.  Point being – you have structured YOUR portfolio to match YOUR risk tolerance.

Assuming all of the above – then my general advice, assuming that you have some time until you need ALL of your portfolio – would be to do nothing.  Nonthing at all!  Sometimes we have to scream out, “Don’t just DO SOMETHING – Stand there!!”

As far as all the other stuff going on, here is my take on current events.  Granted – I cannot foresee the future – no one can – but from looking into things and trying to keep everything within a historical perspective, here’s what I think is going on.

1)  The market first.  The markets are quite efficient.  With probably more than 100 million investors, analysts, gurus, institutions, etc. all playing in the market and trying to get the most profit for the least amount of risk – the markets as a whole factor in a great deal of information in a short period of time.  I believe that the potential outcomes of both a default by Greece, and the end of QE2 are already factored into the current prices of stocks and bonds – for the most part.  None of this information was kept a secret; markets have known for nearly a year about the end of QE2, and honestly – Greece’s entire economy is about the size of Rhode Island’s.  The threat to the EU is certainly there – but more on a political front than as a potential for a global financial meltdown.  I expect very little response from the overall market to either the end of QE2 or a Greek default.  In fact, I believe that Greece WILL default – but in stages.

2)  Again, on the markets.  The economy is in recovery, but this occurs in stages.  Honestly I don’t understand all the wailing and gnashing of teeth – but I suppose that’s what drives in the revenue to the squawkers in the Media.  Remember those old rocket ships that had multiple stages – first the big rocket engine with all the fire shooting out of it, then a smaller booster rocket, and then another, and finally the little spaceship on the top of the rocket fires its engines and it goes off into outer space or to the moon?  Well, every time the rocket ended one stage, the engine would quit – there would be a pause – and then when the next engine would kick on the rocket would continue on its way.  We didn’t see all the media freaking out at every pause… squawking about how the rocket was going to fall back to the ground just because the first engine quit.  We don’t all jump out of our cars and start worrying that our car is broken everytime we shift from one gear to another… a marathon runner knows he can’t sprint for the full 26 miles… so why all the wailing and chicken littling every time there is a bit of bad news or a new report that wasn’t quite as good as the last one?  Economic recoveries take time.  This was the GREAT RECESSION, after all – over a decade in the making, so it stands to reason that it will likely take a decade or more to fix.

3)  There are a ton of reasons to believe that the stock market – and the economy – will continue to head in the right direction – upward.  First – the general index of leading economic indicators is still positive.  Yes, some of the coincident indicators have slowed down, but generally, they are still well ahead of recession territory.  Secondly, employment is still growing.  Yes, we’ve had a slow month or two of new hiring numbers – but employment is still growing.  And the number of temporary workers that have been hired is up to levels not seen since 2009, and companies typically hire temps before perms.

4)  Economic slowdowns (operational pauses) are absolutely normal after a run-up like we saw since last year.  This “pause” gives corporations time to think about their next moves – expansions, hiring, starting new projects, new marketing campaigns, etc.  Corporations have also been hoarding cash; it is only a matter of time before these corporate reserves are put to work in new growth opportunities and innovations.

5)  Stock buybacks are at an historic high right now.  Based upon P/E ratios, stocks are the cheapest they’ve been in 26 years (this from Bloomberg).  The Bush tax cuts are still in effect, corporate profits are higher than ever – and there is currently approximately 2 trillion dollars sitting in cash and on the sidelines ready to be deployed into the markets.  This all makes for a powder keg of bullish opportunity.

Ultimately, no one can see the future.  But I do believe that we as humans typically worry too much.  Supposedly about 95% of the things that we worry about never happen.  So, in this case – assuming all the above – my suggestion is that we just stand back and see where the markets take us.  I’m betting that place is up significantly from where we are now.

Disclaimers:

This blog post is for informational purposes only.  All investing involves the potential of loss – including invested principal.  Indices quoted are general barometers of security price movement.  You cannot invest directly in an index.  Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance.  This message is NOT personal investment advice and should not be taken as such, nor is it a recommendation to buy or sell any security.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP(R), CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm) and federally registered CFP (with flame logo) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

Investment advisory services offered by Paragon Wealth Strategies LLC, a registered investment advisor.

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