For the vast majority of us, the pain we are feeling is unlike any other pain we might experience as part of the human experience. Physical pain is understandable and a fact of life as we age and learn and grow. Emotional pain manifests itself differently, taking a sometimes deeply physical toll but overall, the experience is unique to each of us and because of that, hard to quantify.
Financial pain on the other hand is not often considered a group experience. It can take each of us down a different path even as the overall reasons for the pain seem to be taking its toll on many of us at exactly the same time. This kind of discomfort can be physically altering and emotionally draining. The true nature of financial pain is disembodied, not seeming to exist at any one moment and absolutely unavoidable at another.
We associate pain in two ways: acutely and chronically. In itself, pain offers us an unpleasant sensory overload, forcing us to focus on the damage we have experienced be it physical or emotional. Acute pain happens because of the disease or injury while chronic pain becomes the disease or injury, a constant reminder of what we are. Acute pain reminds us of our mortality while chronic pain keeps us from being fully human.
Our financial markets of late have offered us an unusual and for some of us, a first-in-a-lifetime type of pain. Not all of us feel it as acutely as the other person, but with out a doubt, we will. What was once acute, driven by the opening of our quarterly 401(k) statements, has given way to chronic pain. It is now something unavoidable that we all will soon be living with.
If you have personally experienced this financial pain, while appearing on the surface to be very central to your own life, it is not. This has now become a mutually shared experience.
Rather than focus on the stock market as whole, which seems of late to be driven by the relentless and manic mannerisms of day-traders reacting to no new data but rather random impulsiveness, let’s take a look at our participation as a group in mutual funds. These are amazing tools for the average investor and widely used in retirement plans. They have their faults and laid open, as I had the opportunity to do in my next book on this kind of investment, mutual funds offer investors more upside opportunities than they do downsides.
The savvier among us pick a fund focused on the manager. This route has us basing our investment decision on tenure and skill and performance. Fund managers have other goals, hoping that their skill and performance translates into something much more grand; something beyond the confines of a mere mutual fund. It is an unusual arrangement. We choose them, adoring fans that hope to hitch our investment dollar to their soaring star. They become our hired gun, protection in the wilds of the investment world.
With that in mind, consider the current state of that world. The wild gyrations of the Dow and related indices are not the fault of the fund manager. They are not the fault of those who have invested in the fund manager’s skill. Both parties, the investor and the advocate for the investor are free of blame.
Anna Schwartz, co-author of “A Monetary History” with Milton Friedman believes that markets respond to a number of factors one of which is principles and the knowledge that you know what you are doing. This is a leap of faith, especially when it comes to the tenuous relationship we have in our mutual funds. We are alone together and someone should know what we are doing. But why is that the case?
You can chalk it up to human nature. Once we have decided that we are comfortable with our choices, once we pick the funds in our 401(k) or line up a basket of choices for our IRAs, we let it go. We are forced by our own human natures to focus on other things that we are less comfortable with, the other painful little annoyances that we would otherwise simply live with without much notice.
And then, the events of the last several months thrust us right back, forcing us to focus on something that was supposed to be brainless and better yet, painless. Who knew that one bad mortgage (or the potential 19 million plus bad mortgages) would lead to the financial collapse of an entire system?
This was a pain that still is incredibly difficult to wrap your thinking around. It is as if we stepped on a nail and as a result, something wholly unrelated happened, such as we lost all of our hair. These bad loans, as we have found out, led to a poor administrative response, booking keeping inconsistencies led to erratic and disconcerting actions from any number of agencies much better designed to handle the trauma of pain and that bubbles, be it stock market or housing market, always pointed toward collapse. Who knew?
Should your fund manager have known more than the Federal Reserve or the Treasury, both of who seemed to have no clue despite having all of the clues? Yet we reacted by selling our shares and voting our lack of confidence. Was it right? Should it have happened?
The irony can be boiled down to one simple fact: those that stayed on the Hindenburg survived while those that jumped, perished. Your mutual fund manager, who will ultimately be blamed at some point, has been faced with two problems. The first is redemptions. Forget about looking for buying opportunities. Any money set aside to take advantage of those undervalued stocks is instead paying for the sudden rush of those exiting shareholders.
The second problem is taxes. Those stocks in the portfolio that are being sold are often the ones with the deepest history of profit. This creates a tax scenario that will be almost completely unpalatable for anyone seeking to jump in where they were not previously. Suddenly, these new investors will be faced with a tax bill that will impact returns through the end of the year.
For the long-term investor, this matters little. You have chosen a fund and the folks who are running it with great care, looking at fees and expenses with a wary eye, considering the fund manager as if she/he were knew your personal goals personally, and by using the power of steady investing, you will let the markets works its magic.
Pain unfortunately puts us in touch with our humanity. Financial pain is impersonal, putting us in direct contatc with the pain that others can cause, sometimes unwittingly, most of the time not. And while we now know that this is more chronic and long-term than sudden and acute, that it will take many more weeks and months of wild rides on the indices before it settles down and regains any sort of normalcy, it doesn’t make it much easier or less painful.
For 100 million plus Americans, mutual funds will remain the best way to participate in growing their futures. It will, in times like these seem painful. At least can we seek some solace in the idea that the feeling is mutual.