While the market was doing another backward swan dive, one email came to me that reflected the mass anxiety: "Some are saying it may be time to panic, and I am resisting. What do you think? And what does panic mean: Jump? Sell off?"
After I offered some brief words of staid resolve, it occurred to me that the luncheon speaker at the Morningstar ETF conference I was attending at the time had the right idea, even though he didn't utter a word about finance or markets.
Words of fortitude came from Jeffrey Zaslow, who co-authored books with Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a disabled jet in the Hudson River (saving all 155 aboard); and Randy Pausch, the Carnegie-Mellon Professor who offered a moving "last lecture" on life and love before he died of cancer.
Both men faced life-threatening panics and had to make tough decisions. Sullenberger had minutes to decide the best course of action when bird strikes took out his jet's engines after he left LaGuardia airport. Pausch had a few months to deliver his key life lessons to his students, colleagues and family.
What did they both have in common? Focus and an ability to discern what was important. To distill the essentials of life and articulate them. A lifetime of training, experience and thoughtful examination had prepared them for the moment of truth. As Zaslow noted, they -- along with most of us -- would be remembered for what they did in critical moments. Yet another such global moment is upon us.
I'm not going to pretend that the markets will suddenly see tomorrow that all will be okay with European banking, or that the U.S. government or American megabanks will fix their tattered balance sheets anytime soon. Or that we're not all headed for a global recession or more bank failures.
All of that is possible and that's why the markets are so utterly spooked. Volatility will not ease soon and if you can't afford the risk, you shouldn't be invested in stocks.
What I do know is that this is a perfect time to concentrate on what's essential to you and your family. It's nearing year-end, so now's the perfect time to start asking -- and answering -- these questions:
Are you protected?
This question goes beyond having the basic forms of insurance to cover your vehicles, home/apartment/valuables, life and health. Disability insurance is essential because you're far more likely to suffer loss of income for health reasons. Portfolio protection is key to make sure all of the risks (inflation, market, credit) are fully hedged.
Is your "gross family spending" positive?
I heard this phrase from Robert Arnott of Research Affiliates and thought it was perfectly descriptive of household financial health. It's simple: Do your assets (home, business equity, pension, savings, cash) exceed your liabilities (mortgage, credit cards, taxes owed, loans)? If not, what can you do to clean up your balance sheet?
Do you have a plan?
I'm not just talking about a comprehensive financial plan that sets down your goals, objectives and risk factors in an investment policy statement. What about your estate planning? Do you have a living will or trust? Do you want to continue your education? How can you reduce your taxes? How do you plan to invest in your human capital - what you're good at and passionate about?
What's your legacy?
This is the hardest question of all. Building an estate is just fine, but if you leave behind love for the people you care about, there's nothing wrong with that. This is the most lasting legacy.
You may come to the conclusion that you need some help in answering all of these questions. It wouldn't hurt to approach all of your trusted advisors or summon your family to discuss some of these items. Also check in with your lawyer, accountant or financial planner.
Please note: By "trusted," I don't mean brokers or agents. Professionals who are not on commission can give you more objective advice.
Don't make a move until you know your long-term plan. Now is a bad time to make a decision if you're just doing it out of panic. You're not alone in this and there's no need to completely jump into gold or cash without having a rational defense.
The bottom line is sustainability. If your debts are out of control, why are you worried about the markets? And if you're not protected against loss of income, the European banking situation is incredibly irrelevant.
After you've consulted with your family and professional counselors, then decide if your plan makes sense. You may feel that you're still wobbly - and need to make some course corrections. But at least you won't be flying blind.
Disclosure: I write occasional financial pieces for Morningstar.com.