Trying to save for your eventual retirement these days can be a pretty wild ride. Everything we read tells us that we simply cannot count on our chronically underfunded Social Security system to provide the principal source of our retirement funds, even though we have been contributing to it for decades. So, you need to “save and invest” to provide an alternative, supplemental source of funds. But where to invest?
Bonds and other debt instruments offer only a modest return these days, and no bank pays much in the way of interest on savings accounts anymore. That leaves investing in the stock markets — where, unless you are an insider, for the most part you invest your savings on a wing and a prayer and often feel that your money is out there at the whim of immense forces beyond your control. It’s not exactly a warm, confident sensation.
The last few weeks have brought this ever-present feeling up to gut-punch level. The U.S. indexes have dropped like a stone, shedding a significant chunk of their value, and the end of trading day stories about the declines can only offer speculation about why — and whether more declines are in the offing. Then this week China surprisingly decides to devalue its currency, which has roiled the markets even more and caused more declines in global stock values.
Why has China done this? Who knows? China’s regulation of its economy remains a black box, and it seems clear that, when it comes to China, geopolitical factors beyond simple market forces like the law of supply and demand are influencing its economic decisions. When China’s stock market experienced some sharp declines recently, one news article mentioned that a sign of the underlying issues was that the stock market hadn’t increased, as expected, on the Chinese Premier’s birthday. When trading on stock markets is expected to be influenced by politician birthdays, you know you’re not exactly operating in the kind of world conceived by Adam Smith and his invisible hand.
So, what should the non-insider individual investors do in the face of these massive forces whose inexplicable decisions threaten to slash the value of their nest eggs and crush their dreams of a warm retirement some day in the future? In a world where there aren’t many good alternatives, you can only do what you always do when you find yourself on a wild ride — hold on tight, don’t panic, and hope that it ends sooner rather than later. Who knows? Maybe the Chinese antics will cause the global money interests to conclude that the regulated U.S. stock market, where politician birthdays don’t affect buy-sell decisions, is a good, safe place to invest, and thereby trigger a new bull market in the U.S. of A.