As human beings, our capacity to worry is quite exceptional. In a worldly sense, this predilection towards fear is very understandable as bad things do happen in our lives and in the world around us. In fact, at times our worry has likely kept us from danger or harm. Personally, I know that even as the years have gone by, I have found it very difficult to break the grip of fear in my own life. If anything, I can take some small comfort in the fact that the nature of my worries has changed as time has gone by. These days, I find myself still worrying, but about different things than I did in my earlier years. That probably does not count as progress though!
Given our very human predisposition to worry, it should be no surprise that fears are especially heightened when it comes to investing. In fact, the foundational theory in the area of behavioral economics, Prospect Theory, by Noble laureate Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking Fast and Slow) and Amos Tversky showed that humans are so overcome by fear that we instinctively weigh loss and gain prospects unevenly thereby causing suboptimal decision-making. Especially in the wake of the trauma of the Financial Crisis of 2007 – 2009, investors are predisposed to see danger lurking around every corner. These days, the list of fears that investors face is quite long: trade disputes with China, Brexit, domestic political divisiveness, Hong Kong protests, inverted yield curves, recessionary concerns, etc.
Nevertheless, despite the enticing self-preservation benefits of fear, the Bible is filled with admonitions against it (Isaiah 41:10, Luke 12:22, etc.) because of the obstructive effect it can have on our God-given destinies. Many times in the Bible, the challenge is put forward to “fear not”. Both the Old and the New Testaments have numerous stories of ordinary people overcoming their fears and taking significant risks with extraordinary, even miraculous results (think Moses, Esther, the Disciples, et al.).
In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25), it is illuminating to read of the master’s praise, “well done, good and faithful servant”, for the two employees who took risks with the funds that had been entrusted to them. Yet, maybe even more instructive is the scorn directed at the servant who was afraid and went and hid the entrusted funds in the ground . . . “You wicked and slothful servant.” and “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness”. If this isn’t a call to guard our hearts against acting out of fear, I don’t know what is!
Carrying over this Biblical call of risk-taking to investing, it is important for investors to be on guard against getting wrapped around the wheel of whatever the “worry of the day” may be. Rather, investors should undertake prudent risks aligned with the timeframe of their financial objective. Certainly, for short-term (less than five years) financial objectives such as planned major purchases or expenditures, risk-taking should be minimized. Actually, these sort of short-term financial goals are better viewed as “savings” rather than “investment” strategies. However, for those financial goals that are long-term (more than five years) such as young children’s college funds, retirement, a vacation home, estate plans, charitable bequests, etc. a spirit of prudent risk-taking is necessary in order to grow the funds while outpacing inflation and taxes.
The history of the stock market shows the wisdom of the Bible’s guidance on fear and risk-taking. Going back to its inception in 1927, the S&P 500, the benchmark U.S. stock market index, despite dramatic corrections and crashes, has had a total return of approximately 10% annualized. During this very long time period, despite prior generations’ “worry list” including wars, rise/fall of Communism, recessions, famines, assassinations, political discord, etc. there has never been a 14-year holding period in which the total return of the S&P 500 has been negative. Prudent risk-taking pays off over the long-term. Source: Standard & Poor’s
Obviously, “blessed are the risk-takers” is not actually one of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). Nevertheless, investors who believe that the Bible has wisdom applicable to contemporary life are well advised to consider its guidance as it relates to fear and risk-taking as they make investment decisions.