The traditional gift for a 10th anniversary is tin or aluminum, so to mark 10 years since the financial crisis, let’s make a pinkie swear and vow to not turn a tin ear to what happened and learn some important lessons.
To mark the occasion, I turned to what I think may become the first big-picture, historical account of the event. Columbia University professor of history Adam Tooze has penned a 600-page analysis of the causes and effects of the financial crisis called “Crash: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.”
Rather than focus only on U.S. events, Tooze highlights how the highly interconnected globe was doomed to feel the impact of the financial crisis “and the economic, political and geopolitical responses to that crisis are essential to understanding the changing face of the world today.”
While a geek like me was delighted to immerse myself in the Tooze tome, it also made me think, what larger lessons can I learn 10 years after the global financial cataclysm? I went back to some of my notes and media appearances from the early days of the crisis to see if the advice and analysis I proffered at the time hold up today.
On Sept. 26, 2008, when I was a practicing planner and investment adviser, I was a guest on a TV network. The anchor asked, “Should I pull out of my investments and wait until the storm passes?”
My answer was: “Assuming that you’re a long-term investor and don’t need to access your money for 10 years, guard against the emotional pull of the mattress. Look, going through bear markets is the price you pay to be an investor. If you pull out, you risk not participating in the recovery and yes, we will recover from this difficult period.”
Soon after, I fielded a lot of angry emails from people who thought that my advice was lousy. More importantly, I started to recognize an underlying fear that I had never experienced in my 20 years in the business. I quickly realized that it was important to acknowledge that the 2008 sell-off was not like a run-of-the-mill bear market.
While I was reluctant to state my innermost anxiety — that the financial system was on the precipice of a major meltdown — I needed to recognize that there was a huge emotional component at work for everyone with money at risk.
When I was on the air a month later, I started the segment differently by saying: “This is a scary and difficult time,” and recognizing that some may have made the mistake of taking on too much risk.
Then I reiterated that, for long-term investors, sticking to the pre-crisis game plan would serve them well. But at the time, the U.S. stock market was down about 25 percent. Six months later, the magnitude of the loss would double. Of course, with a longer lens, it’s easy to see that fighting the urge to sell and remaining with a diversified portfolio makes sense. But in real time, that was hard to do.
Anniversaries of market upheavals should be a time to reflect on both the smart and not-so-smart actions we took — not to gloat but to ensure that we don’t repeat mistakes of the past.