There's a political joke that goes like this: “If you're young and not a Democrat, you're heartless. If you grow up and you're not a Republican, you're stupid.”
Well, I have fashioned a similar joke that gets at how I am feeling about the stock market these days: “If you're young and not a bull, you're cynical. If you grow up and you're not a bear, you're sipping way too many martinis out of rose-colored glasses.”
Admittedly, it's not a very funny joke.
But it does speak to this general sense of worry — if not downright dread — that tugs at me every time I pick up a newspaper and read how U.S. stocks are breaking one record after another. Or when I hear that James K. Glassman, co-author of the incredibly wrong investing book, “Dow 36,000,” is once again spouting off about how 36,000 is “now clearly within reach.”
So where does this newfound sense of pessimism come from?
Certainly, it wasn't there in 1987 when I was just entering the workforce and didn't have enough money invested in stocks to notice Black Monday. It wasn't even there after the dot-com wipeout in the late 1990s. That, after all, was supposed to be a fluke, a chance occurrence, a “once- in-a-lifetime event.”
No, it definitely comes from Wall Street's last financial meltdown.
It comes from seeing the value of my retirement savings plummet more than 30% over a 17-month period in 2007-08. It comes from seeing the value of my home, which I purchased in mid-2007, fall similarly.
It comes from seeing many of my friends lose their jobs. And from watching my then 65-year-old mother postpone her much-anticipated retirement in order to replenish her nest egg.
So, yes, I guess you could say my take on saving and investing is different now.
CONCENTRATING ON SAVINGS
Like many of your clients, I am more interested in preserving my savings than seeing it grow at double-digit rates.
I also am focused on increasing my savings and keeping debt to a minimum — even if it means making moves that are not always considered financially prudent, like paying extra on my mortgage each month even though it has an exceptionally low interest rate.
I also keep a closer eye on fees.
Believe it or not, I am now one of the few investors who actually flips through a mutual fund prospectus to see what that fund's expenses are. For better or worse, I tend to favor low-cost index funds over more actively managed funds.
Finally, after the unpleasant experience in the late 1990s of riding a technology incubator company called CMGI Inc. from $164 a share to pennies a share, I almost never invest in individual stocks — no matter how much I believe the company behind the stock is going to change the world.
Am I a full-fledged bear? Probably not. I did, after all, keep most of my savings in the market after the financial meltdown and have benefited from the market's recovery.
But definitely, I am not a bull. I know all too well that the stock market is no place for the hopelessly optimistic.
Maybe, just maybe, I've learned a thing about the markets and myself.