Coping with Financial Crises: Wealth-Building Lessons from Recent History
They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The bad news is that the last 50 years have seen 5 major financial, market, or economic crises (not including whatever we find ourselves in now). The good news is that each crisis has lessons that you can apply today to help you build more wealth and feel more secure about your future.
Each of the following 5 crises left their mark on how people save and invest and provide lessons on protecting and building wealth even in troubled times.
Keep reading to see how people in previous generations managed in those times and what we can learn from them.
1970s Financial Crisis: Stagflation
After World War II, the United States had the fastest-growing, most productive economy in the world. But several factors contributed to the economy’s decline into the 1970s and the economic malaise that came to be called “stagflation.”
Stagflation is a combination of conflicting economic factors — slow economic growth and high unemployment (typical of a weak economy) combined with rising prices (which more typically happen during good economic times).
Stagflation was a double whammy for the average person.
What Caused Stagflation?
Inflation started to pick up in the U.S. at the end of the 1960s, in part because the government was pumping money into the economy to support the Vietnam War. Then, in 1973 the price of oil zoomed up after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) levied an oil embargo on the U.S.
Because oil prices are passed on through most goods and services, the result was double-digit inflation. This came at a time of persistently high unemployment.
Stagflation Lesson 1: Plan for the Possibility of Inflation
Stagflation reduced the buying power of every dollar people earned and saved, just like inflation does.
That is why just holding cash is not an adequate retirement strategy. You need your savings returns to keep pace – and preferably outpace – inflation in order to retain your buying power and quality of life.
Running scenarios for inflation against your long-term financial plans is really important.
We are currently experiencing high inflation and neither a recession nor stagflation are out of the question. However, whatever economic woes we find ourselves in, they won’t last forever. Consider that over the last 40 years, inflation has ranged from a high of 14.8% in 1980 to a low of -2.1% in 2009.
Use the NewRetirement Planner to run scenarios and even get a Monte Carlo analysis (running more than 1,000 scenarios) to make sure your finances are prepared for any inflationary scenario. Inflation is at around 9% now, but the average rate over the last 20 years was 2.24%. And, the long-term average inflation rate (from 1913 to now) is around 3.10%.
Remember that you want to account for a long term average – not short term highs and lows when planning for your future.
Stagflation Lesson 2: You Are on Your Own to Fund Retirement
For most of the 20th century, employers offered loyal employees pensions for a lifetime of service. Among the many changes in U.S. culture and society that took place from the mid-60s to the 2000s, employers stopped offering pensions and employees took the deal. That shift was accelerated by the stagflation’s drag on the economy.
As a result, you are now considered extremely lucky if you have a pension because pensions take a lot of the guesswork out of planning for future retirement security.
If you don’t have a pension, you are especially in need of a comprehensive retirement plan. You ideally save money, make good financial decisions and figure out how to turn your assets into income and make it last as long as you do. The NewRetirement Planner makes that process easy.
Stagflation Lesson 3: Diversify Asset Classes
You may be wary of being over-invested in the stock market, especially when it whipsaws from lows to highs and back again over a few months. However, in the 1970s many people were over-invested in bonds, and that was bad for their retirement.
During the stagflation crisis, real interest rates were extremely low. (The real interest rate is the nominal rate of return on a bond minus the value lost to inflation.) This made returns on government bonds – a staple of an average retiree’s wealth at the time as well as the backbone of most company-sponsored pensions – incapable of protecting retirees’ buying power.
When you are retired, you need to be appropriately diversified. Appropriate investments in both stocks and bonds – as well as other asset classes – can reduce the risk that any one investment tanks your portfolio.
The Stock Market Crash of 1987
On Monday, October 19, 1987, stock markets around the world experienced a sudden unexplained drop in prices. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) fell nearly 23%, which is nearly twice the percent drop of the next biggest crash — that on March 16, 2020 caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Though many culprits were blamed for the crash, none have been definitively proven to be the cause. The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank under Alan Greenspan vowed to be the lender of last resort to make sure the stock market crash didn’t become a financial crisis, and a big change was made to government regulations that allowed exchanges to temporarily halt panic selling.
1987 Crash Lesson 1: Don’t Sell, Sit Tight!
Lots of people lost lots of money on Oct. 19, 1987, Black Monday. Spooked by the market crash, people rushed to sell stocks, trying to stem their losses, making the markets fall farther and faster. It turns out that with the panic selling, they were making a big mistake –selling at a loss.
During a crash, you do not want to react quickly and emotionally. You want to sit tight and wait for the recovery. Don’t sell at a loss because the real lesson from history is that markets have always recovered.
Five years after the 1987 crash, a person who was invested in an S&P500 index fund would have seen their portfolio nearly double. And that portfolio today (assuming only asset growth and no addition from dividends) would be worth fourteen times more today than it was then.
Don’t sell, sit tight!
1987 Crash Lesson 2: You Can’t Time the Market, so Don’t Try
No one predicted the ’87 crash, and people still aren’t exactly sure why it happened. This highlights the point that you can’t predict when to ideally buy and sell.
Have a long term plan and stick to it no matter what the market happens to be doing on any given day, month or year.
Consider creating an investment policy statement to help you make good rational decisions about investments.
Warren Buffett, the most famous investor on the planet, famously said, “when other people are greedy, be fearful. When other people are fearful, be greedy.”
Prices are low in a downturn. It is often a time to buy, not sell.
Growth in the stock market eventually led to what Alan Greenspan notoriously called “irrational exuberance.” By the end of the 1990s, companies were adding “Dotcom” to their names just to increase their share prices.
Then in March of 2000, the Nasdaq Index that tracks the technology-heavy exchange started a decline that didn’t end until October 2002.
Dot Com Crash Lesson 1: Day Trading is Fun, but Not Often Productive
The internet not only created companies that people wanted to invest in, but it also created online brokers that allowed more people to trade in stocks. Online brokerages like E*TRADE made it seem like you could bet on your favorite companies, and in 1999 everyone was a winner.
This allowed many investors to be speculators and left some people exposed to individual companies that they may or may not have known very much about.
A couple of the key lessons coming out of the dot com crash (and earlier stock market boom and bust cycles) include:
- Diversification: It is usually more prudent to be diversified and own index or mutual funds rather than individual companies.
- Adopt a Long Term View: It is almost always a good idea to adopt a long term attitude toward investments. Buy index funds at regular time periods and don’t watch the daily highs and lows.
- Daytrading is Perilous: Research indicates that even seasoned investment analysts can’t do better than the returns on an index fund over the long haul. Daytrading might be fun, but it isn’t the surest way to build wealth.
Dot Com Crash Lesson 2: You Don’t Have to Follow the Trends
The dot com bubble was caused by an over-investment in technology companies. Everyone wanted to own Netscape, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and a host of other dot com entities.
(Don’t recognize a couple of those companies? Yep! Two of those three failed miserably along with many others.)
But, you know what? If you were an investor who was not trying to buy into the dot com craze and was diversified in other industries, you probably took only a small hit in this crash. And, you were well recovered within a year.
Diversifying holdings across a variety of sectors and companies is almost always a good idea. Buy index funds instead of individual stocks.
Dot Com Crash Lesson 3: Fundamentals Count for Something
A lot of companies that saw huge valuations during the dot com bubble were without a business model. They did not have a solid defensible plan for making money.
It sounds crazy, but it is true. When you are investing in a company, you ideally know something about what that company does and how they will grow your money.
Know what you are investing in and buy quality.
The 2000s Housing Bubble
From 2002 to 2008, house prices zoomed upward until people thought the return on the equity in their homes would rise forever. That bubble burst when the subprime mortgage market in the U.S. failed and caused a cascade of bankruptcies that threatened to take down the global financial system.
Home prices fell dramatically and didn’t recover for a decade.
Housing Bubble Lesson 1: Your Home is Not Always a Financial Fortress
Owning a home is one of the smartest financial decisions you will make, in most cases. However, when the housing bubble burst, many people lost their homes to foreclosure, or they walked away from underwater mortgages.
Homeownership among 55- to 64-year-olds fell from 82 percent in 2004 to 75 percent in 2017.
Interestingly, however, people who were already retired felt almost no effect on their rate of homeownership. That might be because in 2008 people who were born before 1943 had paid off their mortgages by the time the housing bubble burst.
Housing Bubble Lesson 2: Be Wary of Easy Credit
If credit is too easy in a market, then it will cause asset prices to be overly high. Because almost anyone and everyone could get access to credit – a mortgage — it inflated housing prices beyond rational values.
Housing Bubble Lesson 3: Don’t Own Too Much House
Many people got in trouble in the housing bubble because they borrowed too much money to buy a home that was more expensive than they could reasonably afford.
Experts suggest that your monthly housing costs — mortgage payment (or rent), property taxes and homeowners insurance — should not exceed 30% of your take home pay.
Housing Bubble Lesson 4: Bubbles Are Human Nature, Protect Yourself With a Plan
The housing bubble was the second bubble crisis in 10 years, and it won’t be our last. Bubbles, you see, are a clear result of human nature.
As Warren Buffet explains, “People start being interested in something because it’s going up, not because they understand it or anything else. But the guy next door, who they know is dumber than they are, is getting rich and they aren’t. And their spouse is saying can’t you figure it out, too? It is so contagious. So that’s a permanent part of the system.”
So, how do you protect yourself from bubbles? The most important thing you can do is to understand your goals, your risks, and have a long-term, defensible plan.
Housing Bubble Lesson 5: Your Home is a Valuable Asset
The housing bubble brought attention to the fact that housing is often your MOST valuable asset and usually a stable one.
It is also an asset that can be used to help fund retirement. Use the NewRetirement Planner to explore ways to use home equity as part of your overall retirement plan.
The Great Recession
The bursting of the housing bubble was followed rapidly by the Great Recession, starting in 2008.
From May 2008 to March 2009, the value of the S&P500 got cut in half.
The Great Recession had a materially negative impact on people who were nearing retirement. Research shows that the Great Recession delayed retirement for those who didn’t lose their jobs, and those who did lose their jobs likely tapped retirement savings to cover the shock to their budgets.
Our current financial woes seem most similar to those experienced in the Great Recession. Consider these lessons:
Great Recession Lesson 1: You Can Probably Make Things Work
For people close to retirement age, this was a difficult time, but according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), people in those difficult circumstances tend to cut back their spending and rely on Social Security, annuity and pension income rather than sell investments at a loss and spend down their savings.
Not sure you could bridge through a stock market downturn? Perhaps you could turn to emergency money.
Great Recession Lesson 2: Diversify Investments for Short and Long Term Needs
You need to be invested. You need some money invested in the stock market in order to outpace inflation. However, you don’t need all of your money invested in the stock market.
The real trick to being able to weather a recession is to keep money you need in the short term in cash and money that you won’t tap till later can be in riskier investment vehicles like stocks and funds.
Explore a retirement bucket strategy for your short and long term financial needs.
Great Recession Lesson 3: Invest Passively
Passive investing is the strategy of buying and holding investments for long periods of time – rather than buying and selling frequently to try to beat the market.
Passive investing is the right strategy for most of us for longer-term money needs.
Great Recession Lesson 4: Think Retirement Income, Not Investment Returns
When you retire, investment returns are still a factor, but the more important concern may be how to turn your assets into reliable income.
Explore 18 retirement income ideas.
The Big Picture
The COVID-19 pandemic, the recession it produced and the gyrations in stock markets have created a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for people saving for retirement.
This time isn’t different from the other times, though we have become a little smarter because of the lessons we’ve learned from history. The most important lesson is, “stay calm and carry on.” Don’t liquidate your stocks because you’re afraid it’s the end of the world. Pay down your debts as much as you can, and live within your means.
If you follow these rules derived from the lessons of history, you’ll be Okay.
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