– Ben Stein
Now for some reassuring words. Of all of the columnists writing in this space, I suspect I am the oldest. This means I have seen the most economic fluctuations. This also means I am less terrified about them than younger heads.
Let me put this differently. I read recently in The Wall Street Journal that the stock market was at the time of that writing almost in “Bear Market Territory,” which is to say, down roughly 20% or more from its high. This, said the author of the piece, shows that we are about to have very bad economic times. The author helpfully noted that the market has been down into “Bear Market Territory ” some nine times since the mid-1960’s. Without doubt, this author was trying to do his best, and to serve his readers.
But here’s a relevant addendum: yes, the market may have fallen 20% or more nine times since then. But there have only been five recessions since then.
That is to say, the stock market predicts 10 out of five recessions. Not such a great record.
The truth is that while the economy is clearly slowing down we are not yet in a recession. There has so far not even been one quarter of negative economic growth, nor even a break-even quarter. We may well have one soon, but two in a row are required for the classic definition of a recession. And as I keep saying, if anyone can call anything a recession, the whole subject loses all intellectual or factual meaning. This too could happen-a real recession-but it has not happened yet.
There are still reasons for hope. Exports are phenomenally strong. Minerals and agriculture are strong. Medical is strong. The government sector is large and robust. Sadly, military must remain strong indefinitely.
The government is running an immense deficit, and this is stimulative. True, finance is in tatters, as is transportation, refining, and home building. These are large sectors. They may fall so much that they bring the economy into recession.
But think about this: somewhere out in the big wide world, there is voracious demand for minerals and commodities. That (along with speculation) explains their major price increases. It would be extremely rare for there to be a spectacular worldwide demand for commodities along with a serious fall in demand for other factors in an economy. That is, it would be rare for demand to be both rising and falling at the same time. It could happen, but it would be rare.
However, let’s assume we do have a recession. I hope we don’t, but we might. What do we do about it? What can we do about it? Just keep plugging along. Just keep buying broad indexes. Just keep a good chunk of liquid assets. None of us can control the economy. Thus, we just have to keep swimming in the roiled waters.
As we cling to our life jackets, please remember this: no recession lasts forever. I can well recall so many times in the past when every single headline in The Wall Street Journal was about some record growth of sales or profits. Then time passes and every single headline is about horrible news. Then time passes and there is mixed news, and then it’s all good news again.
Economies go through cycles. But the long-term trend is up, and people who buy broad indexes when the news is bad, if they live long enough, live to be happy about it.
Besides, what alternative do you have? If you have money to invest, yes, keep some in cash. But cash loses its value in inflationary times. In fact, holding cash over long periods – beyond what you need for peace of mind – is a surefire way to make yourself unhappy. You will lose money on it over long periods as inflation nibbles at it.
The best bet usually is what has gone down the most, and that, for now, is real estate. I got a letter from a thoughtful reader saying he was going to wait until real estate had reached its all time low before he bought. But how will he know? And how rarely does he find a home he truly loves? Even when homebuyers buy at the top of the cycle, if they love their homes, and if they can hold on, they always end up delighted.
Yes, there will be news saying housing will not recover THIS TIME. But in fact, except in really depressed areas, housing recovers EVERY TIME and goes on to pass its prior record. The real story of real estate, as my brilliant money manager friend, Phil DeMuth, says, is of failing to buy, not of staying away successfully.
The plain fact is that you don’t know when real estate will be at bottom until it’s too late. If you see a home you love, buy it now if you plan to be in it a long time. And know that the headline writers want to whip you up and make you crazy about the economy. They sell fear. Stay calm and stay well to do.