The Fear

Things seem pretty scary at the moment. Climate disasters, war in Ukraine, Ebola in Uganda, right wing shifts in Italy, significant remilitarisation in Europe, a soaring cost of living – I could go on. Having always been a political animal I now refuse to have the news on in the morning because it makes me want to go back to bed and just stay there.

Writing a blog about personal finance (and I mean that in the loosest sense) means that recognising the impact political and socio-economic changes have on people’s lives and opportunities is critical. There is a big difference between painting a falsely aspirational picture versus giving people hope and courage to try a different path and see how they can succeed in their context.

So I just wanted to take today to talk about The Fear and why it’s not unfounded.

100% faith over fear. But it takes a lot to say faithful in an unstable world when you keep getting kicked down. Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Personal finance is largely built on evidence-based faith. We look at the options open to us; historical shifts, values and movements; and our own future plans and needs. Then use all that information to triangulate the best options. I mean – this is what happens ideally. Sometimes we get hopeful, or greedy, and it’s more like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Sometimes we freak out, and it’s more like flipping over a table full of delicious food in order to hide underneath it. But in essence, making decisions means assessing what we think will happen, in our lives and in the markets, and trying to match them up with available options.

Take deciding to invest in the stock market. This is traditionally somewhere where it’s easy to be fearful, and decide not to get involved (caveat – there are other excellent political reasons not to do so, but that’s for another time). It is also a place where people are likely not to realise that not investing creates other risks around having their savings eroded by inflation. But intentional action always feels more scary than unintentional inaction, even where the impact might be the same.

Over a long period of time, the stock market has consistently gone up. As the financial planners say, it is time in the market, not timing the market that delivers results. Taking the graph below which models the sorry history of a fictional investor who puts money in just at the worst possible time, we see that he still benefits from compound interest and ended up with a 7.98% annualised return.

In other words, however disastrous certain moments were, the net result of investing in the stock market has been positive.

Modelling of a single, ill-timed (and imaginary) investor. Credit

The massive caveat here is that if the market crashes at a point where you need your money, you are screwed. And that’s where The Fear comes in. In the example above, if that investor had lost their job and been forced to pull out their savings to live off, or reached pensionable age and had to cash out an invested pension, they would not have won.

This is all aside from people freaking out and pulling their own money at the wrong time, like I did in 2020. If you are in a position where you must – either for reasons of perception or fact – have to take money out of the market at a time when it is down, you will lose.

This week I have been reading Nomadland (also a film). This amazing book charts what has happened to the “invisible casualties of the Great Recession”, largely older people who unexpectedly found that, in spite of investing in it for years, the American Dream would be forever out of their reach. There is more I want to reflect on about the changing nature of work – most of the people featured in the book will never be able to retire but are forced to work seasonal, temporary jobs – but that’s for another time.

Having a global financial shitstorm happen at a time in your own life where for whatever reason – divorce, illness, getting to an age where you are considered disposable – on top of all the other institutionalised inequalities that impact on people’s ability to make ends meet, can push you permantly to the bottom of the heap. Whils the stock market recovered from the 2008 mega crash, and people who were able to stay in the market have done very well indeed, 10 million Americans lost their homes. For those who lost their homes but were upside down on the mortgage or on other debt, they could spend many years paying for something they no longer own. Having to make money to service a debt for a dream they suddenly couldn’t afford.

So The Fear is real. It’s not to stop any of us from dreaming, or investing, or anything else. I still wanted to recognise how quickly things can go left: there are long term impacts that we can still see, and blithely ignoring the possibilities is just foolishness. I want to leave with these two photos from Detroit of a residential street 9 years apart, in 2009 and 2018. Detroit was one of the hardest hit areas during the recession, meaning there are a lot of streets like this.

It’s ok to be afraid and still look for ways to keep moving in faith: in fact, that’s maybe all we have. But remember that there are people and places which have been erased by these historical financial moments. And they won’t be coming back.

From a community to an overgrown pathway in less than ten years. Read the full story and see other examples here.

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