What a great time to be old. My father just celebrated his 93rd birthday and passed his driver's license test that was required this year. At Florida's senior-friendly DMV, they checked his eyesight, too a fresh picture and told him not to come back until age 99. Of today's 75,000 Americans who are over age 100, one-third of them are still driving.
Most of this same generation grew up during the depression, so the shock of today's economic crisis probably strikes a responsive chord and brings back memories of childhood hardships. The financial press keeps playing on these fears by pointing out that this recession has surpassed the Reagan-era recession and is closing in on the 1930's record.
Well, our octogenarians lived through it before, and they can teach us how to do it again. We can all learn a lot from a generation that learned early on how to be "tight with the nickel."
"This time is different," of course because we have a social safety net that never existed in the 1930's, but what people also experienced back then was not as bad as some of the statistics indicate. Mark Hulbert, in The New York Times, points out that while the stock market took 25 yeas, technically speaking, to return to the highs of 1929, the actual market investor was whole again in just four years.
Talk to old people today who lived through that period, and you learn that life was not so bad. Hulbert explains why, and we can expect a repeat of these same positive conditions as we muddle through this recession.
He stars with a discussion of deflation. The consumer price index dropped 18 percent from 1929 to 1936, and the stock market dollar level never reflected that adjustment. We see this today if we ignore official Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures and just look at the reduced prices of some of what we want to buy.
Starting with houses, the cost has dropped by almost half in some parts of the country. Florida offers an elephant graveyard of used RV's in great shape for next to no money. Cars, new and used, have dropped in price substantially. A lot of discretionary spending, even on basics like food, can be reduced dramatically.
Dividends were the next major factor contributing to the economic well-being. At the bottom of the market, dividends in the 1930's were as high as 14 percent per year, and none of the statistics comparing market levels ever includes reinvested, compounded dividends. Today's dividend rate is almost 4 percent on the S&P 500 index and that's almost four times the average dividend over the past 30 years. Reinvested dividends contribute 25 percent of any stock investor's success over time.
Ajustments in the companies making up the Dow Jones Industrial Average caused a major distortion in those calculations as to when the market had returned to its 1920 high. Removing IBM, for example, which then made huge gains in the 1940's, would have changed everything for the better.
The conclusion is that the market is like Yogi Berra's old restaurant - "it's so popular, nobody ever goes there anymore." Those of us who make up what's called "patient money" still find the food on Wall Street to be quite nutritious - and a good value - like oatmeal. The people who "don't go there anymore" are sitting on the sidelines with their $9 trillion in cash.
At an amount equal to roughly 15 percent of the total value of the S&P 500 index, it is twice the 7 percent that it represented at the bottom of the last bear market. When those picky eaters finally decide to gorge on stocks, they will all belly up to the feeding trough at once, and values will go through the roof.
Meanwhile, the average recovery time for bear markets is more like two years, and small company stocks generally lead those recoveries. Considering the recent news that we hack into the computer systems of the Taliban to detect their troop movements, we can conclude that a global technology boom has gained a foothold with a long way to go and that investments outside the U.S. may offer some of the better returns in future years. After all, while our Rust Belt struggles, how bad can the world be when the Chinese are still growing 10 percent?
Throughout the 1930's the Great Generation managed to hand in there. Businesses like GM consolidated, the market in real terms rebounded ant eh financial system adopted constructive regulations. Hearing first-hand accounts of life in those days leaves me feeling reassured - that we've been through this before and it turned out fine.