An Investor's Thanksgiving

Most of our day-to-day activity is devoted to negative things: the dripping faucet we should fix; the bill we have to figure out how to pay; the deadline at work that seems impossible; why our kid's allergy gets worse every year. It's good for our mental health to spend one day a year considering the bigger picture: all the things in our lives that do work; the fact that we can afford the things we really need and a lot of the things we want; that we have jobs we care enough about to worry about failing; that we have a kid at all and that his or her worst health problem is allergies (assuming those things are true; if they're not, as long as there's life, there's something to be thankful for). It's good for our perspective to realize life is not an endless series of chores but a successful (to date) story of survival. It's good for our souls to think of the people who don't have these things and to do at least a little bit to help them.

Investing is no different. Three hundred and sixty-four days a year we worry whether we are saving enough, whether we're taking the right amount and type of risk, and what's going to happen with markets and taxes and the value of money. One day a year we can be grateful that we have enough savings to worry about. Instead of agonizing over tough choices, we can be grateful we have so many choices, including many sensible, low-cost ones with attractive economics. We can take a break from griping about future uncertainty to recall that the only place with a certain future is the graveyard (not counting vampires and zombies).

Okay, enough sermonizing. Sure, we're glad we're alive and have family and friends (however irritating), and the world isn't blowing up, love-love, kiss-kiss, but it's hard to focus on that for a full 24 hours. How about some specifics?

The stock market. A low-volume steady rise from an S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) of 1400 to 1800 since last Thanksgiving is a nice ride. You don't get a lot of years like this in your investing lifetime. Maybe you didn't participate, or maybe you were short, but you should still be grateful that the opportunity was there. A rising stock market supports a lot of good: more jobs with higher pay, support for more entrepreneurs, more tax revenues to plug budget holes without having to raise tax rates. Tomorrow you can worry if high prices mean there's going to be a crash or, with more empirical support, if the Shiller P/E going from 15 to 25 means we're likely to see lower-than-normal real returns on equities over the next five years. Tomorrow you can complain that the stock market is rising faster than other things like employment or median real income. Today just be grateful for the massive wealth creation, especially if you collected a slice of it yourself.

The banks. Bear with me. I know you hate those sneaky credit card and overdraft fees and the incomprehensible tiny-print legal agreements they stick in your statements, not to mention the large-scale shady dealings that lead to near daily announcements of multibillion dollar fines, potentially wrecking the economy. For all the griping, our banking system is as sound as it has ever been at least since the federal government started playing around with inflation in the 1960s. Business models are rationalized, leverage is reasonable, financial statements are less opaque. Banks are not perfect, of course; they're too big and complex, and they don't support enough innovation, but US banks are in so much better shape than banks in Europe or Asia. US banks are also better off than they were 5, 10, 20, or 40 years ago, and for that Americans should be grateful.

Interest rates. This is another one that requires some justification. Sure, rates are too low if you want to buy bonds for income, and too high if you want to borrow money or sell bonds you bought at lower rates. But these things are always true, regardless of the level of rates. The reason to be thankful for current levels is that any big move from here is going to be worse. Much higher rates mean inflation or distrust of government credit, and will create a gigantic government fiscal problem, which could snuff out any recovery in the economy or housing prices. Much lower rates mean negative rates, deflation, and possible disaster. For today, be grateful rates are in the temperate zone compatible with human economic life.

The economy. There's a lot to dislike in the short-term, like stubbornly high unemployment and stagnating real wages. But if you focus on the bigger picture, you see globally that more and more people are being lifted out of extreme poverty each year -- including in some of the most economically troubled parts of the world -- and we may see the end of extreme poverty within 20 years. Innovation, real practical innovation that improves lives, is occurring at the fastest rate in history, and seems to be still accelerating.

The financial system. Like a reckless, obnoxious, disobedient teenager, it can be easy to forget why we love the financial system. Not because it creates billionaires or technology IPOs or bubbles, but because it allows ordinary people, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, to achieve lifelong financial security via their own efforts. This is an extraordinary human accomplishment. Unfortunately, it doesn't work for everyone. Some never earn enough to invest, others are derailed by health problems, unemployment or other issues. Still others make poor financial choices. But today, focus on the tens of millions of winners who earned financial security without extraordinary talent or luck, by working, saving regularly, and making sensible investments in low-cost, tax-smart, risk-appropriate, diversified financial products.

Some people will consider it impious to be thankful for money-matters rather than, say, health, family, and friends. I disagree. Voluntary exchange among free individuals is a higher good, in my opinion, than people hacking each other to death over honor, ideology, religion, vengeance, or anything else. It's true money cannot buy happiness, but money troubles -- financial insecurity -- make it pretty tough to be happy, or to be a good friend or provider for a family. Money can't make you healthy, but it allows you to return fair compensation to the people who can make you healthy.

Of course, you may disagree. In that case, you can be thankful that you're not me.

Happy holidays to everyone.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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