I don't usually have a Tuesday column. But after I posted a vignette about my wife's timely advice Monday, the paper asked me to write something about the stock market, so I wrote this, taking that story and expanding upon it.
Looking for context as the market was in free fall Monday, I pulled down my journal from 1987 and checked what I wrote on Oct. 19, another Black Monday, when the Dow shed nearly a quarter of its value.
It was the biggest one-day loss ever, far beyond anything in the Great Depression, or this Monday's stomach twisting dive and return and dive again.
Young me was surprisingly disengaged on Oct. 19, 1987.
"Much interest and speculation over plunging stock market, which lost 550 points by late afternoon," I wrote, noting that the event cast "an air of holiday menace over the day, like a storm when you are a child."
I was nearly a child, 27, and didn't have any investments to speak of, and could afford to be blase. But even now, twice as old with an all-important nest egg the only thing between me a an impoverished old age, "holiday menace" still sounds right. You saw that 1,000 point drop and thought "Wow!" almost whistling in admiration, without necessarily associating it with the money you've just lost.
Like most investors, my strategy is a blend of fear, ignorance, superstition, snatches of conversation overheard in locker rooms, , various articles skimmed in doctor's offices, and did I mention fear?
Fear is my primary motivator; 2013 was a very good year for stocks. More than 29 percent up. Even I knew that was a lot. So knowing that such a rise had to be followed by a considerable fall, I began pulling out.
Slowly. That's a second mantra. Do everything slowly, gradually. Be a snail investor. Fear and dawdling.
So in 2014 I begin slowly pulling out. Slowly. While the market goes up another 10 percent, I'm shifting my money into dull-but-safe 1.6 percent a year bond funds.
It's very hard to make money at 1.6 percent a year.
This year, I figure time to nudge back in. Which brings up my third motivator: greed. Fear, dawdling and greed. The market is pretty flat. It's gotta start coming back.
Or not. Last week. Pow pow pow pow. Four down days. And we all know what you do when the market goes down. You buy.
So on Sunday, I move a big hunk of change into the market. Trying to be the smart investor that I'm really not.
Now it's Monday morning, in bed with the wife. The clock radio stirs us with the doom from the East. The Chinese market is down 8.5 percent.
Summoning courage, I tell my wife I just pushed a big chunk back into the market.
"A couple thousand?" she said hopefully.
"No," I said. "A lot more."
"The markets haven't opened yet," she suggested. "Maybe you could cancel your order."
"I don't think it works like that," I said.
I had no idea how it works. To me, investing is just pushing stuff around. I don't have a broker, just a computer screen. I feel like a child deploying his toy soldiers across a carpeted playroom.
I went upstairs, logged in, went to transaction history, which I had never done. There was the automatic deposits, my previous nudging of funds back into the market. And one pending transaction. Plus two words. "Cancel Transaction." Yes! I clicked on them. The transaction was cancelled.
I flew downstairs to congratulate my wife for being a genius. And so greeted the 1,000 point swoon with more relief than the average investor--choosing to focus on my dollars who were safe on deck instead of joining those flailing around in the sucking vortex of loss and volatility. Yes, some money was going down the drain. But not as much as could have been.
Better for amateurs to ignore this stuff, lest it drive us crazy. Take a set amount, have it automatically sacrificed into a 401(K). Adjust as your night terrors dictate, but don't fret about it. It's all lost money anyway. Either the market will eat it, or I'll die suddenly and my wife will spend it on Aegean island cruises with her new boyfriend. Or she'll go and I'll blow it on babes and bourbon. Or we'll both linger and the money will be hoovered up by whatever grim hellhole of a nursing home we'll end up in. Or we'll both go, and the boys will stare with shock and disappointment that this, this was all their parents managed to sock away from a life of toil.
However the chips fall, it's a losing game, eventually, whether the market goes up or down.