If this down market is like every other in history, though, the money will turn up again. It's sort of like losing car keys, only it will take two to three years to find them. But just as we don't sell the car because we can't find the keys, we shouldn't be selling our investments.
More important, in spite of what's been lost, an amazing thing has been found. As I sit across from clients, the various reactions to their plummeting portfolios is amazing. Some clients are afraid. A few are angry. But the most surprising thing that I have found is the number of clients who want to know how I am doing. They have a fundamental belief that things will work out. Some think things may be different than they expected, but they still believe everything is going to be OK.
These clients are right.
They believe things will be OK because even though they may not have to make adjustments yet, they will do so if they need to. They believe things will be OK because they have found things to focus on beyond the day-to-day volatility of the market. But mostly they will be OK because they are knee-deep in a difficult mess like this and are sincerely asking: "How are you doing?"
No matter what the markets do over the next few months, eventually they will rally. There are as many compelling reasons to be out of the market as there are to be in it, but unless you are going to leave the market forever (by either spending or panicking), it won't help you to focus on the gyrations.
The stock market is not that different from life. You can never completely figure it out. There are times when things come together and other times when things fall apart. So step away from what you can't control and put your energy into something that you can.
Service to others is the single best coping mechanism I have seen in my 26 years of financial planning. As Wendell Berry states in his book, "Home Economics,'' within "the membership of the Great Economy everything signifies; whatever we do counts. If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys."
This is a time for caring and community. Talking about what you have lost is communal. Others are experiencing things far worse, while some are faring better. Community is, by its nature, cohering. I know of several spiritual organizations that are offering gatherings for those who are feeling anxious. This is not a time to try to just try to tough it out.
Action helps us feel as though we have some control over our situation; community helps us know we are not alone. There is an event coming up that melds both of those. While there are numerous worthy causes, the Simpson House Homeless Memorial March and Service on Dec. 18 honors the homeless who have died in the past year in Minnesota. A service follows in which the deceased are named. (See details at www.simpsonhousing.org.)
I can promise you that if you attend this event you will feel far less anxious about your portfolio.
Now is the time to give. Paradoxically, the drop in the markets has made many of us realize we may actually have more than we need.
Maintaining, or consciously increasing charitable donations will not only provide a tax deduction, it will have a huge influence -- maybe even on your own neighborhood. But it will also influence you. Giving money to charity is an acknowledgement that you have enough. And while for the moment you probably have less than you had before, you almost certainly have enough.
Financial cycles have been around as long as there have been markets. No one can accurately tell you when this one will right itself. The drumbeat of bad news makes it easy to feel vulnerable. But when you are able to shift the focus from yourself to others, you will be surprised at how well you can get along until you find those darn keys.
Spend your life wisely.