This is the craziest, creepiest year that I can remember, both in the financial markets and in the real world, in my half-century-plus of writing about business.
In the markets, covid-19 touched off a panic that in late March left the S&P 500 down 31 percent for the year, until the Federal Reserve and Congress rode to the rescueby throwing money at markets, people and businesses.
Since its March bottom, the S&P — the most important single stock market indicator, to which trillions of investment dollars are indexed — had risen 65 percent when last I looked, and it was up about 14 percent for the year.
This has happened even though the economy still looks crummy and even though our country is racked by dangerous divisiveness, making our differences during the Vietnam War look like a walk in the park.
On that less-than-cheerful note, welcome to my annual year-end column, in which I tell you the things that I got wrong, and a few things that I got right, and try to add some perspective to what’s going on.
I spent a lot of time this year writing about the stock market, which has been endlessly interesting and occasionally terrifying. I also wrote quite a bit about Social Security, which President Trump seemed intent on undermining bycutting or eliminating payroll taxesfor no reason that made any sense to me.
Fortunately, his proposals got almost no traction. We still need to worry about Social Security’s deteriorating finances, but with Trump about to hit the road, we no longer have to worry about him getting his Trumpublicans to change Social Security into just another government spending program that would be vulnerable to serious cuts.
My biggest mistake this year was writing this in February: “I’ll bet you that by the time this is finished, the coronavirus — serious as it is, especially if you or your loved ones are exposed to it in any way — will be a lot less serious than doomsayers are now predicting.”
Oops. I soon changed my tune. Reading that column as part of my annual self-review was painful, because I had totally forgotten writing it. You can see why I didn’t want to remember it.
I wrote several times about how the Fed’s ultralow interest rates cause problems for pension funds and for people who’ve saved all their lives and would like to get safe, substantial interest income during their golden years.
Forcing people of modest means to depend on the stock market for income to pay bills after they stop working is madness. It subjects them to financial and psychological stress — especially in a year like this one, in which the market has lurched so wildly.
I also wrote quite a bit about the difference between the booming stock market and the less-than-booming economy, which has become a popular topic lately.
I’m not anti-Wall Street. I think it’s fine for investors to make money. But the disparity between people (including me) who own a lot of stock and are profiting from the market’s rise and the millions of people who have lost their jobs, own little or no stock and are facing economic disaster really bothers and scares me.
It should bother — and scare — all of us, because the last thing our country needs is more divisiveness. If people in need don’t get a lot more help than currently contemplated inthe new stimulus package, it bodes ill for the future. And it will bode ill for future stock prices, as well.
One of my worries about the stock market is that more than half the S&P 500’s gain this year has come from just three stocks: Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. What goes up big can also come down big, as Tesla shareholders may find out if, as I and others suspect, the huge boost the electric-car company got from its inclusion in the S&P wears off.
When I wrote about Ted Aronson of AJO Investments closing his $10 billion fund because he felt that value investing didn’t work anymore, he and I both wondered whether his Oct. 15 closure announcement would mark the end of Growth stocks’ years-long advantage over Value stocks.
Guess what? Since Aronson’s announcement, the S&P Value index is up 8 percent, with S&P Growth up just 5 percent. It’s too early to tell whether this is a trend or just a blip. Maybe next year we’ll find out.
Maybe we’ll also find out if today’s stock market — withinitial public offerings surging in value the day they’re sold, brokerage houses promoting programs to let people buy partial shares of companies and day-trading by amateur stock speculators (whom I won’t call investors) becoming trendy — is in some sort of bubble. Would that I knew.
To depart from what I normally write, a word about masks and social distancing. I wish that supporters of masking and distancing had calmly and politely explained from the outset that masking is the same as requiring all drivers to go in the same direction on one-way streets — that it’s a question of public safety for yourself and other people, not an infringement on your freedoms.
Sure, Trump ridiculing mask-wearing and other safety measures was a huge problem. But supporters of masking and distancing could have done better at talking to people rather than talking down to them. There’s still time to do that. And there’s still time to regain some civility in our public life once Trump leaves the White House.
A final word: Let’s hope that by the time I write my 2021 year-end column, today’s traumas and troubles will be history, not current events. A happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous new year to you and yours.