In the 2008 global financial crisis, American workers with >20 years experience lost an average of 25% in their retirement funds1.
Imagine working and saving hard for decades — let’s say you have $200,000 in your retirement account at age 55. Then comes the global financial crisis (GFC), and suddenly you’re left with just $150,000.
I think most people can accept big losses if they know it’s something risky. Like if you take $100 to the casino or bet it on a dog coin and lose it all, you wouldn’t be too upset.
But retirement funds? Money that’s supposed to support you when you’re done working? It just doesn’t feel right.
If seeing the numbers in your account go down wasn’t bad enough, many people realized an ugly truth: Sometimes you can do everything “right,” but still suffer because of the actions of others.
Not My Fault, but Why Am I Being Punished?
14 years on from the GFC, here we are in 2022, still being “punished” by things out of our control.
Here’s a list of global events I’ve been thinking about:
- Central banks “printed” huge amounts of money over the past decade to support institutions (through the GFC) and people (through COVID-19). But this caused asset bubbles (hello SPAC and crypto bros) and eventually led to sky-high inflation.
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is causing all kinds of supply disruptions in fuel, food and commodities. Countries are scrambling for food and energy security, because you can’t rely on grain and gas from Russia/Ukraine anymore.
- Could things escalate into a nuclear(!) war?
- To try and control inflation, central banks around the world are increasing interest rates fast. I’m now paying a few hundred bucks more every month for my home loans.
- The US dollar has grown to its strongest in 20 years. When we started this year, it was 4.18 Malaysian ringgit (where I’m based) for 1 US dollar. Now it’s 4.74. Wonder if I’ll ever be able to afford another trip to watch an NBA game.
- Meanwhile the S&P 500 is down 22%. Even the “safe” 60/40 portfolio is on track for its worst year since the 1930s. RIP if you’ve been buying high-risk-uncertain-return things like NFTs.
Such pain. How do you deal with it?
Dealing With Pain in the Markets
I want to say this sensitively. No matter the challenges I have, they’re silly compared to some of the shit happening around the world. So my net worth’s down 31% this year — but it’s not like I’m hungry or living in fear of getting bombed.
These are just things that work for me in my current situation. I hope they’re helpful to you in some way:
1. The Days Feel Shitty, but the Decades Are Getting Better
Despite recent events, there’s plenty of evidence we’re living in the best time ever in human history. Here’s one example:
36.5% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty2 in 1990.
32 years ago — not too long. Some of you can probably still remember life in 1990.
Guess how many percent lived in extreme poverty in 2019?
In just 3 decades, we’ve reduced extreme poverty by more than 75%. Huge. Is there still lots of suffering in the world today? Of course. Have the past few decades seen amazing increases in prosperity? Also true.
Remember: bad news grabs people’s attention. It sells. So while terrible things get highlighted everyday, there are also many great things that go unnoticed.
Follow Max Roser for more doses of optimism.
2. The World Breaks Down Regularly
Morgan Housel is fond of saying: “The world breaks about once a decade.”
Everything might feel like it’s going to shit, but looking at history, it’s always been that way.
2008 GFC. 2000 Dot-com bubble. 1997 Asian Financial Crisis… I could go on and on.
Here’s my assumption: High achievers get irritated when things break down. Way more than others. (I’m also assuming that if you read my blog, you’re a high achiever.)
If you’re used to winning, to having things work out for you — it’s only natural to be pissed off when things don’t. Especially when it’s not your fault. It feels unfair as hell.
This is normal.
3. Everything Is Probability
Last weekend, I was speaking at a financial planning event where someone asked: “How can you be so sure of future returns?”
You can’t. There are no guarantees. Even if you put 100% of your money in “risk-free” assets, black swan events can happen. Even banks go bankrupt. Even countries can fail to repay their debts.
Life is often marketed as a series of black and white decisions. Right or wrong answer. Reality is different. Paraphrasing Annie Duke: Life is not chess; it’s poker.
Understanding probability can help us.
How can I still put money into stocks, when stocks are down 22% this year? Well, I’m investing for >20 years, and over a period of 20 years, my choice of major stock markets indexes (S&P 500 or MSCI World) have never returned negative3.
Might it ever happen? Yes. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. But based on the best information I have, that’s a pretty good bet.
The ability to make probabilistic-based decisions allows you to sleep better.
What Should a Rational Investor Do?
Good news: if you’ve already got a solid financial plan going, you probably don’t need to change anything.
Most of us would do well if we continue to:
- Excel at work — whether it’s your day job, side hustle or own business — so our income continues to grow.
- Invest for retirement. Most of you reading this have another few decades to accumulate wealth. Don’t worry about temporary dips.
- Keep investing regularly. Personally, I invest the majority of my money in “safe” assets, while I dabble with a smaller amount in riskier stuff like crypto. This balance works for me, but everyone should find a balance that allows them to sleep well. (For specific portfolio allocations, you might want to speak to a financial advisor.)
- Keep expenses under control. But don’t forget to splurge on happy things that make life meaningful.
If you’re religious, it’d be nice if you prayed for all of us too.
When Finance Goes Beyond Personal
Sometimes the challenge about personal finance is it’s not personal at all.
I keep seeing “challenging macro environment” in the news, so I did some reading about common macroeconomic factors: Interest rates. Inflation. Unemployment. Fiscal policy (how the government plans to spend money). Foreign exchange rates.
You can’t control any of these directly, yet they affect your financial future.
The closest you might get is if you become a powerful central banker. Or get elected and serve as a finance minister.
Perhaps the best most of us can do is vote for good politicians. Smart and wise ones. Yes, it’s popular to hate and be skeptical. Believe me, I have a long list. But if you don’t believe in any good in others, how can you expect good things to happen?
In times like this, I’m reminded of an old prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”
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- Source: U.S. News
- Source: Our World in Data
- Historical data: US Stocks S&P 500 (1872 – 2018), Global Stocks MSCI World Index (1978-2022)
Pic from NastyaSensei