When I listen to money discussions by people who seem to understand finance, I’m usually pretty intimidated. I am certainly a financial novice. I understand the basic rule of retirement planning, that you have to be in things for the long haul, that the market ebbs and flows and you have to bear with it despite your immediate anxieties. At least this is what people smarter than me have always told me. And there’s a part of me that still holds on to that way of thinking. I want this to be true. I want to believe in clear rules, in the notion that long-term commitment surely pays off. I have a suspicion that Social Security won’t be so secure by the time I need it. So I’ve put part of my check aside for the past decade into a mutual fund, hoping for modest gains over the years, hoping blind faith in those people smarter than me, who set up and manage the mutual fund, will pay off in the long run. Of course, that fund recently took a severe nosedive like many others. Still, I have time to recover. If I do retire, it will be many years down the road.
Trouble is, right now, it’s pretty hard not to think of the stock market as some red-faced, huge-bellied country club guy, an I-know-better-than-you fellow, who drinks too much, smashes up the clubhouse, then collapses in a bathroom stall, before bellowing out for help.
According to common investment wisdom, I’m supposed to witness this, help the guy off the floor, then continue giving him part of my paycheck for the next 30 years, pretending his drunken fiasco didn’t happen, while blindly accepting that he is wiser than I understand and that he won’t go on a bender again later.
Surely that sounds bitter to some. But that’s not my intent. Actually, I’m pretty mellow about my retirement account these days. There are far greater things to worry about. And there are many people with much greater troubles. Any whining I do about an IRA ought to come with that acknowledgement.
I’m just coming to a new acceptance. Right now, I have a hard time seeing my IRA mutual fund as much more than a glorified game of blackjack, given that it’s only good if you win enough over time and then step away from the table before folks get rowdy and flip the table upside down. I say this because we’ve seen so many people who played by the old rules, who were faithful to the basic tenet of working hard and investing in a low-risk diversified way, who were severely burned. Many are now trying to mend their wounds while they search for post-retirement work.
Of course, there are all sorts of numbers thrown around these days regarding the economy — the unemployment rates, the bailout figures, the national debt.
Many numbers are eye-opening. But one significant figure that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention is 41. It’s the percentage of U.S. corporate profits that came from the financial sector this decade. Prior to 1985, that percentage had never gone over 16.
So over the past two decades, as manufacturing dwindled, Wall Street more than doubled in size. With the flow of easy credit, there were more and more ways to reshuffle that paper, more ways to create a huge stack of poker chips without really building much of anything to back them up. Both political parties supported the ballooning of the financial sector. The easy credit for housing was like coal for that growing machine. And financial novices, me included, kept putting their chips on the table, blind to the hot air that filled the balloon.
In recent years, I’d ride down the road, wondering how we could see economic growth if we weren’t really making much of anything besides houses, content to just buy stuff made overseas.
Now, most everyone can agree that the best economic medicine will be a heavy dose of at-home manufacturing, something clearly visible from the roadside, not just tricky number manipulations in a finance netherworld.
Until that happens, I’ll try to stay calm, take the good with the bad and save as much as possible.
These days, I pretty much ignore the stock market, pretending it is like a wildly moody acquaintance best left alone. He’s giddy one day, grumpy the next. Go figure. All I know is I wish he’d get some counseling and appropriate medications.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.