Most of you know by now that when you see a “Market Update” post from me, something ugly is happening in the financial markets. This time, it’s the classic fear of a global growth slowdown, with China at the center of the action. There’s plenty of literature out there pointing to all of China’s problems, so I won’t bore you with a recap. Growth there is slowing, dramatically, and there’s little debate about that. For a long time, emerging market growth was thought to be enough to overcome the stagnation that has happened through much of the developed world. Slowing growth (maybe even a real recession?) in Asia, eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America has left financial markets wondering what can drive global growth. Without it, it’s hard to imagine that corporate profits can continue to grow, hiring will increase, spending will rise, and the virtuous cycle will continue. Oil prices have plunged, partially due to the increase in supply led by the US shale revolution, but lately, I suspect it’s again due to demand slowdown fears led by China. While lower commodity prices are beneficial for consumers, it puts a halt on the growth of one of the sources of job gains in the US and provides even more basis for worrying about global growth. Add in fears of the Fed starting to raise rates soon (which almost certainly isn’t going to happen in September now thanks to the recent stock rout), and we have the makings of a meltdown.
[As I write this at 9:30am, the US stock market just opened and the market itself is not functioning properly. There are stocks and funds that opened down 20%+, were halted, and bounced back sharply. It looks a lot like the flash crash of a few years ago. I’d venture to guess that many of those trades will be cancelled by the end of the day. Many stocks did not open on time. Don’t believe what you’re seeing for quotes until that’s all resolved. I suspect the Dow was never really down the 1000+ points that were indicated shortly after the open.]
I don’t know how bad China will get. I don’t know how much fear will beget fear and cause stocks to fall. I don’t know how long it will take for everything to stabilize. What I do know is that China won’t be wiped off the map and that a billion people have a massive amount of productivity to deliver to the world as skills, technology, and resources move from other parts of the world to China. There is a massive portion of the developing world that is living in or on the edge of poverty. Technology is moving so quickly, making the world smaller and smaller and it seems impossible that the disparity in standard of living between the developing and developed worlds can continue forever. Emerging markets will drive growth eventually… It just make take a while to get through some of the policy mistakes their governments have made and to normalize some of the capital flows that have probably put too much of the developed world’s central bank provided liquidity into emerging markets in search of yield. While the media may try to convince you otherwise on a day like today, the world is not ending.
Take this as a gut check. After years without a major fall, there is a tendency to think that stocks go up in good times, and do nothing in bad times. We’ve forgotten that stocks also go down and they tend to go down much faster than they go up. This causes stress when portfolios have not been set up appropriately for your goals. Ask yourself this question: “If the stock market loses half its value as it did twice in the last 15 years, will I still be able to achieve my goals?” The answer to that question is dependent on what your goals are, how soon you need your money, and how much of your portfolio is in the stock market. If your goal is retirement in 20 years, then you’re going to have most of your money in the stock market and downturns are going to be painful, but you (and your portfolio) won’t even remember that this downturn occurred by the time your retire. If you’re looking to buy a house with most of your money in the next couple of years, then most of your money is in bonds, which actually do fairly well when stocks move lower allowing them to offset some of the stock fall and mute the impact on your portfolio. The real concern for investors should be whether or not you’ve really evaluated your goals and communicated them to your advisor. As long as we’re on the same page, your portfolio is allocated in a way that the stock market falling 10%, 20%, or even more isn’t going to ruin you. That doesn’t mean your portfolio won’t go down… I assure you it will and that’s a necessary risk in order for it to go up in the good times. It means that you should still be able to achieve your goals even if stocks fall sharply over the short term. As I posted on Twitter on Friday, “If it matters to you that stocks fell today / this week, you’re gambling, not investing.” If you feel like you’re gambling and you’re worried, please contact me. It means you’re letting your emotions get the best of you (and I’m happy to talk you off the ledge) or that your portfolio isn’t in line with your goals (which means we really need to talk).
I’ll conclude with something no one wants to hear while the market is falling, but everyone realizes is true eventually. Investing at lower prices actually increases long-term wealth and the probability of achieving your goals. In my most rational moments (which are admittedly hard when the entire world’s stock markets are down 10%+ over two days), I cheer when the market falls and get more nervous when it rises because I know your long-term goals (and mine) have a better chance of success when prices are lower and we can invest more money at those lower prices (see The Value Of Volatility post from 2013). Would you rather your next 401k contribution get invested at last week’s higher prices or this week’s lower prices? Buyers should always want prices to be lower, even if it doesn’t feel good at the time. On days like today, which definitely don’t feel good, please keep that in mind.