As a follow-up to my piece, Troubles, a few weeks ago, I offer you some of my further thoughts on navigating the current market environment as a biblically responsible investor.
From an economic perspective, the Coronavirus pandemic is both a demand-shock and a supply-shock. So, as opposed to a significant hurricane or blizzard or even the 9/11 terrorist attack, this exogenous event may not simply push back economic activity, but rather may actually destroy it. Therefore, it is highly likely we have already entered a recession. Monetary and fiscal stimulus are critical components for an economic recovery. They must be done. However, in and of themselves, these economic policy levers are not enough. The new health concerns that have emerged must be addressed over the coming months, into the next flu season, and for years thereafter. Further, consumer and business confidence must be restored. This will simply take time and there are no short-cuts around it. Lastly, while we all long for a return to “normal,” it is likely that when we do emerge from this crisis (and we will!), life and the economy will be different than it was before. Specifically, our day-to-day lives and the economic environment will be changed in terms of travel, social interaction, entertainment, health care, the social safety net, politics, globalization, etc.
As we face these challenges, we must remember that it is buried very deep within our human nature to want to take action in the face of adversity. Especially in times like these, our natural behavioral instincts (incl. survival and herding) activate into high gear and we rally under the banner of “Don’t just sit there—do something!” Against that instinct, however, the Bible gives us the challenging guidance to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). It is almost as if our command as believers is counterintuitively to “Don’t just do something—sit there!”
In our hearts, we know that this is wise instruction, but it is a tough pill to swallow as the stock market plunges. Fortunately, most investment experts wisely support this concept of prudence by advocating a mindset of calmness, resolution, and perspective. However, many times their advice is offered as a “To Don’t List,” e.g., “Don’t panic!” “Don’t sell!” “Don’t abandon your plan!” “Don’t capitulate!” or “Don’t liquidate!” All these are wise guidelines, but they go against our very strong human reflex to actually do something!
Therefore, in contrast to a “To Don’t List,” I share with you a list of proactive actions that can be taken by investors right now. This is based on my 35 years of investment experience, but equally on my 45 years of being a follower of Jesus Christ. This Bear Market “To Do List” is called “P.E.A.C.E.”
Pray: Before anything else, let’s be sure to pray. Let’s be on our knees crying out to God for healing, comfort, and provision for those who have been affected by the Coronavirus. Let’s pray and fast in support of the global forces of human ingenuity, science, and wisdom being brought to bear against this modern-day pestilence. Lastly, let’s pray that through this adversity, many will come into a personal relationship with God. Praying is something we can “do.”
Engage: Engagement is something that we can definitely do in this environment. Even if they are not afflicted by the Coronavirus, so many around us have been impacted adversely. Within the proper protocols of “social distancing,” let’s engage with our family, friends, and community who need our assistance—neighbors who need to be checked on, seniors who need some shopping done, or maybe some health-care or emergency-services workers who need help with their out-of-school children. Let’s look for ways to support local businesses and their employees who are suffering dramatic downturns in their revenues. How can we support those in our communities who are most economically vulnerable? Engage is something we all can “do.”
Assistance: Unfortunately, economic downturns often lead to a significant decline in charitable giving—just when the needs are at their greatest. Therefore, something that we can “do” is to maintain, if not even increase, our donations to our church, community organizations, medical-research charities, etc. They need it now more than ever. Assistance is something we all can “do.”
Cash: In all market environments, bull and bear, one essential thing that investors must “do” is ensure that they hold an adequate amount of cash. This cushion mitigates the risk of having to “sell into a hole” during a market downturn when money is needed to cover expenses. Most financial planning experts recommend that anywhere from 6 to 24 months of living expenses be held in safe, low-yielding cash, savings, or money market accounts. If an investor does not currently have that amount of money set aside, then now is the time to do it, even though the market has sold off so dramatically. However, even in such a volatile market environment, investors should be cautious about holding too much cash, especially with current interest rates so low. Remember that at 0.25% per year, an investor is on course to double her money in 288 years! Having the right amount of cash—not too little, but not too much—that is another thing that investors can “do” in this market environment.
Ease into the stock market: In these trying times, our “fight or flight” instincts are particularly pronounced. So while many investors are grappling with their “flight” impulses, others are engaging with their desire to “fight,” i.e., buy at these significantly depressed levels. Sometimes this is likened to trying to catch a falling knife. From our perspective, the stock market’s downside risk is still substantial. However, at -30% from the all-time high and with valuations much more attractive now, we believe that we are likely closer to the bottom than the top. Further, being a provider of investment capital in such dire times also meets a higher, noble purpose. Therefore, what investors can “do” if they have cash ready to be deployed is start easing into the market. A “dollar cost averaging” (DCA) strategy is a good method to minimize the emotional toils of a turbulent market by committing to invest a set dollar amount on a predetermined schedule, come what may. For those investors who are already fully invested, there is still something that they can “do,” namely rebalance. In rebalancing, investors make adjustments to their portfolio at the margin to bring it back to its target percentage allocations. In other words, trimming down (not selling out completely) some of those investments in asset categories that have done relatively well (e.g., bonds) and redeploying the proceeds into asset categories that have done relatively poorly (e.g., stocks). These are some prudent things that investors can “do” to ease into the stock market in the face of the sell-off.
In conclusion, I urge you to keep the faith as you grapple with your “To Don’t” and “To Do” lists under these stressful conditions. It affects all of us! Even Paul wrote, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15)!
And when grip of fear tightens, just remember the promise we have received:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. —Matthew 11:28-29