Climate, weather, and your money
If, like I do, you happen to live—or at least spend time—in Southern California, you know that there are two topics on everyone’s lips at the moment: Donald Trump, and the torrential rain. Depending on who you happen to be talking to at the moment, either topic is sure to elicit one of two responses: optimism… or sheer panic. In both cases, taking a look at the differences between climate and weather can help quell the storm.
Here in Southern California, we live in a desert. Despite our earnest efforts to pretend we live in a climate that can support lush lawns and the greenest gardens, our Mediterranean climate is dry in the summer, nearly every summer. Our winters can be wet, but not always. And while shifts in the atmosphere may bring short-term changes to the weather, our physical location on the planet is what drives our climate—which, if it changes at all, changes extremely slowly over thousands of years. (To be clear, I do believe we humans play a critical role in climate change, and that it is changing, just not as quickly as the weather!) The recent rains have lessened the severity of our five-year drought, but because of our climate, there will always be a shortage of water. To survive, we will always need to plan for that reality.
The same is true when it comes to investing. Bull markets and bear markets battle it out based on changes in the economic weather, but our climate, which is rooted in capitalism, remains steady. The markets are always (always!) rising, which is why investors wisely choose to place their money on Wall Street rather than tucking their hard-earned dollars under the mattress each month. History shows us that the climate for investors in the US is favorable, and that reality doesn’t change, regardless of the current weather pattern.
I had lunch with Maggie this weekend. In her 90s, she still has substantial assets, but for obvious reasons, we’ve allocated a meaningful part of her portfolio to bonds. While she understands that that bonds provide stability in her portfolio, Maggie can’t help but wish her portfolio was busy taking even more advantage of the recent surge in equities. Instead of mirroring the DOW’s 16.6% increase since November 1, she’s watched her portfolio fall by 1% in the same time period. It’s not much of a drop, but when the headlines are filled with record-breaking highs in the equities space, it’s hard to sit on the sidelines. She’s never doubted our plan, but looking up from her coffee, she asked timidly, “Should we change course?”
I replied without an ounce of hesitation. “We shouldn’t change a thing.” As I said to Maggie, and what I believe with absolute certainty, is that while the weather has shifted, the climate remains the same.
You don’t need to take my word for it. Warren Buffett just published his always-anticipated Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A, BRK.B) shareholder letter (you can read the full 29-page missive here). As usual, his thoughts are straight to the point, as well as pointed, and even humorous. This excerpt reiterates my thinking well:
“Early Americans… were neither smarter nor more hard working than those people who toiled century after century before them. But those venturesome pioneers crafted a system that unleashed human potential, and their successors built upon it. This economic creation will deliver increasing wealth to our progeny far into the future. Yes, the build-up of wealth will be interrupted for short periods from time to time. It will not, however, be stopped. I’ll repeat what I’ve both said in the past and expect to say in future years: Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.”
He goes on to say this:
“American business—and consequently a basket of stocks—is virtually certain to be worth far more in the years ahead. Innovation, productivity gains, entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of capital will see to that… During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.”
Maggie isn’t the first person to ask me if it makes sense to steer in a new direction in light of the recent market weather. After all, the current bull market is already well past the average length of a typical bull market. But so is California’s rainfall for the year. Is the market overheating? No one knows for sure. Not even Warren Buffett. What we do know is that the weather is unusual. But though we may want to break out an umbrella every now and then, the climate itself hasn’t changed. Only the weather has shifted. That’s true when looking at the White House as well, which can impact the forecast for the economy and, ultimately, the market. Heed Warren Buffett’s words and trust that “our nation’s wealth remains intact” and “As Gertrude Stein put it, “Money is always there, but the pockets change.”” The key is to continue to make wise, rational investment decisions to help ensure the money in your own pockets stays where it belongs—even during the fiercest of storms.