Government & Politics

A community organizer who knew better than Goldman Sachs’ boss

The bull has the upper hand these days. Photo by Thomas Richter, Creative Commons license.

Three years ago President Obama offered us some unsolicited financial advice. He said that stocks looked like a good buy for investors with a long-term perspective.

At the time, you’ll recall, the country was in the Great Recession. The pace of job destruction was brutal. Every six weeks, another million people were out of work. Equities were in total free-fall. On both Wall Street and Main Street, “Fear” had “Greed” by the short-hairs.

Yet Obama, who had been in office a mere 40 days, had the audacity to tell us that stocks were on sale. Prices looked pretty attractive, he said. Therefore we should consider buying shares in publicly-owned American companies.

A few days later the Dow Jones Industrial Average bottomed out and has been rising (in fits and starts) ever since. Tuesday the Dow closed above 13,000. It’s up nearly 100 percent from its lows in March 2009, when Obama made his recommendation.

In hindsight, Obama’s financial advice panned out. It was a prescient call, especially if you compare it to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s ludicrous claims in 2007 that the housing market was “at or near a bottom.” (Paulson is a former CEO of Goldman Sachs; Obama, a former community organizer in Chicago.)

Of course, nobody I know took Obama’s advice. It was just too scary to invest in 2009 while the market headed straight down. I’m sure some fat cats saw the “blood in the streets,” and bought stocks at the bottom. But it’s relatively easy to take chances when you have an abundance of capital.

For average middle-class investors, it’s another story. They usually run from bloody losses. Often, they’re either already fully invested in the market and get out (how can I trust my family’s future to a market that scares the bejeezus out of me?); or worse, they try to set their fears aside and bravely invest their savings during the bloodbath, as Obama suggested, but huge, quick losses rattle their psyches. Then they usually capitulate – and sell – at exactly the wrong time.

So, what is my advice for you? To listen to the “BOracle from Chicago”? To embrace the red deluge as it pours your way (a la “The Shining.” )?

No, no. I don’t offer financial advice in this column (and you probably shouldn’t listen to me on such matters in person, either). My only advice is that you should always consult a professional financial something-or-other before you do anything with your money.

Disclaimer tendered, I will tell you one more thing. It’s simple to become a rich investor. Just be greedy when everyone’s fearful and fearful when everyone’s greedy. Easy peasy. When you inform your trusted financial-something-or-others that you seek “above average returns,” they will nod and smile. Then their expression will change as you issue the following instructions: sell stocks only when the shoeshine boys are offering tips, and buy only when the streets are brimming with Type O negative.

Seriously, though. It’s now the Lenten season when many of us do our taxes and review our finances. If you pay an adviser, it might be illuminating to compare the advice you got in March 2009 to President Obama’s. Did your adviser merely warn you not to sell, or did he actually have the guts to recommend you consider buying more stocks, as Obama did?

Over the past eight years I’ve kept track of a historical parallel that derived from a stocks chart I saw at The Big Picture blog. In 2004 I noted that from 1968 to 1982 the Dow had been stuck in a range (roughly) between 700-1200. Later that year, I predicted that the “painful deflating of America’s credit bubble” would keep the Dow in a 7,000-12,000 range (roughly) through the rest of the decade, “paralleling the 700-1200 range [the Dow] kept from 1968 to 1982.” My prediction was mostly accurate, except during 2007 when the Dow spiked up to 14k before crashing throughout 2008 and bottoming in the 6k range in early 2009.

Since the economy is improving, are stocks due to break through their “ceiling” in 2012 after being range-bound for the previous 14 years, just as they did in 1982? Who knows? If they do, does that mean I’m a prescient genius? Of course not. I’m just providing interesting nuggets of data. If I really had it all figured out, do you really think I’d reveal my investing “secrets” in a column, or a book, or a seminar? No way!  First I’d first use my insights to become a multi-billionaire!

For more food for inconclusive thought, consider this news item from January:

Given the rally in bonds in 2011, it might not be surprising that the Ibbotson Associates SBBI bonds index, a broad bond measure, returned 28% last year, crushing the 2.1% return of the Standard & Poor’s 500 including dividends. The bond index also topped stocks for the past 10 and 20 years.

What’s more surprising, though, since it contradicts the widespread belief that stocks beat bonds, is that the Ibbotson Associates SBBI bond index has returned 11.03% a year on average over the past 30 years, edging out the 10.98% return of stocks.

That basically shatters the conventional financial wisdom over the past 30 years, which held that “over the long-term” a well-diversified portfolio of stocks would have returns superior to bonds. Tens of thousands of people have made careers repeating this shopworn advice.

So let’s review: if you bought stocks at the wrong time in 1968 and sold them at the wrong time in 1982, you hardly made a buck. Then, over the next 30 years – despite two huge bull markets and everyone’s insistence on the long-term superiority of stocks – bonds out-performed equities. Those facts blow my mind.

One of the essential questions that investment advice author Ken Fisher asks his audience is this: “What do you believe that’s actually false?”

It’s a thought-provoking query, in many ways. Perhaps, in light of the startling facts I’ve reviewed here (as well as the multitudes I haven’t) you might want to pose that question to the person you now turn to, or pay, for financial advice.

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  • You are referring to secular market trends. The last secular bull market ran its course early in the year 2000. We have been in a secular bear market since. Within each secular megatrend there are many cyclical (shorter duration) bull and bear markets.

    Buying and hold a diversified portfolio is not a valid investment disipline IMHO. Those with big money that understand how the market works were short in 2008 before buying off bottom in early 2009.

    The current cyclical bull market is very long in the tooth.