Looking back over the past two years, one word comes to mind: extreme. It’s been a period of extremes in the market and in the economy. Many have benefitted, but we’ve also seen excesses that aren’t necessarily healthy—from the rise in NFTs to the craze in SPACs to the boom in day trading. That’s why, as you look ahead to the coming year, the theme I recommend is moderation. Here are some of the ways you could apply this idea to your finances:
Shiny objects: This category includes, among other things, the growth of meme stocks and the proliferation of cryptocurrencies. Apparently, there are now more than 8,000 currencies. The gains in these investments have resulted in a fair amount of FOMO—fear of missing out—among investors. Nonetheless, as you might guess, my recommendation is to continue to keep things simple—to tune out the noise and stick with less volatile choices.
I recognize, though, that in the middle of a market boom, someone urging caution risks sounding overly conservative. That’s why I think the recent decline in some of the most highflying investments, such as the ARK Innovation ETF, is instructive. Last year, this fund rose 158%, easily beating the overall market. But this year, it dropped about 23%, trailing the overall market by nearly 49 percentage points. If you’ve been feeling any amount of FOMO yourself, that’s a figure to keep in mind. The lesson: At the end of the day, the overall stock market is volatile enough. Why seek out even more risk? Instead, seek moderation.
Politics: To be sure, the political environment today is highly partisan. However, and maybe surprisingly, there are some similarities between the parties—at least in terms of economic policy. President Trump appointed Fed chair Jerome Powell, for example, and President Biden reappointed him. And Congress—under Republicans in 2020 and then under Democrats in 2021—supplied stimulus to the economy when it needed it most.
The similarities may end there, but still I see an important lesson, which is to set aside politics when thinking about your finances. The reality is that the market has, on average, gone up under Democrats, and it’s gone up under Republicans. Use that knowledge to keep your eye on the horizon. Don’t let your distaste for one party or another impact near-term financial choices.
The pandemic: If there’s one thing that we can all agree on, it’s the fact that the pandemic is different today from the way it was a year ago. And it will be different again, in ways we can’t predict, next year. The lesson: The country and the economy are resilient. To be sure, the pandemic has generated an unusual amount of turbulence, but it hasn’t caused a depression along the lines of what some feared. At the same time, it’s also been more serious than others predicted. On balance, though, we’ve collectively been putting one foot in front of the other to get through this.
That’s why, just as with politics, I recommend maintaining a moderate mindset. Should you hold more in your emergency fund today than you might have before? Sure. But should you sell everything and hide out in cash or gold? Definitely not. Instead, rely on the aphorism I referenced a few weeks ago: Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems.
Budgeting: This week on Twitter, I was surprised to see a debate break out on a topic I wouldn’t have expected to be so controversial: budgeting. Specifically, the question was, is it useful to track your household expenses, or is that really just a waste of time that only feels productive? The debate generated dozens of comments.
Especially interesting was the number of replies prefaced by “I respectfully disagree.” Usually, when comments are prefaced that way, the disagreement isn’t so respectful. But in this case, the diversity of opinions was instructive. Some described how they had tracked every expense for more than a decade, while others said they’d never tracked expenses at all and saw no reason to. And there were several strategies between those extremes.
The lesson: In the world of personal finance, lots of people have opinions on how things should be done. But this debate illustrated a key truism: There is no one-size-fits all. You shouldn’t worry if someone else does things differently.
Retirement income planning: Earlier this year, I talked about the “4% Rule” for retirement spending and noted how partisan the debate had become around that specific figure. Fortunately, research continues on this topic, and in November, Morningstar released a study that should help retirees breathe easier.
Instead of declaring any particular portfolio withdrawal rate safe or unsafe, Morningstar’s team offered a useful menu of strategies for boosting withdrawals. Their conclusion: “Simple tweaks can have an appreciable impact on your withdrawal rate.” This is thus another area in which you can sidestep the shrill debate and instead chart a moderate path of your own.
Expectations for the future: Consult a measure of stock market valuation such as Yale University professor Robert Shiller’s CAPE Ratio, and you’ll find what looks like an alarming picture. According to the CAPE, the U.S. market is more overpriced today than it’s been at any point since the peak in 2000. It’s even higher than it was in 1929. But what does that mean for the future? Is the market headed for a significant correction? Should you be alarmed? That’s one view.
Another is to acknowledge that the market always has ups and downs and may indeed drop from today’s level. But unless you know when it will drop, when it will hit bottom, and when it will recover, then there isn’t a lot you can do about it. That’s the alternate view.
Between these two extreme, though, is another possibility: As Jonathan Clements described in a recent article, the market doesn’t need to drop in order for its valuation to come back down to a more reasonable level. “Suppose stocks treaded water at current levels, while corporate earnings climbed 5% a year. Five years later, at year-end 2026, the S&P 500 would be at 18.8 times earnings, below the 19.9 average for the past 50 years.” In other words, we don’t need to see a market crash for valuations to return to normal. We just need the economy to keep growing.
What will actually happen in 2022 and beyond? It’s anyone’s guess. But as Clements’s example illustrates, it doesn’t need to involve an extreme scenario. As a result, a moderate mindset may serve you well.