Is China's turmoil the next Lehman Brothers?
I am taking a break from physics topics to discuss a hot topic of the day: the extreme turmoil on the stock markets due to trouble in China. I am not sure how the system works in other countries, but in US your retirement funds, your nest egg, is usually tied to the stock market fortunes as the largest investors are mutual funds. Every person have his or her tolerance to fluctuations and loss but major evaporation of retirement funds can be very nerve racking. Since I got burned in the past and learned from my mistakes, I want to share some common sense advice you will not easily find otherwise.
The first observation is that unless you are a serious investor willing to commit time and resources into researching individual stocks it makes little difference overall on which mutual fund you select. Each mutual fund is already diversified and by watching how the DOW does you have a pretty good idea how your investments are doing. For the usual ups and downs of the market you do not need to worry at all, you will have an average return of about 8%, but what to do when there are violent price movements like the recent ones?
One of the most imbecile advice typically found on CNN by their so-called experts like Richard Quest is that you should not panic and ride out the storm. Is there a topic he is not qualified in? But when the losses exceed 8, 9, 10% this shows that major events are happening and it is not the time to stick your head in the sand and pretend it is business as usual. It is true that overreacting is bad and usually the ordinary investor crowd bets incorrectly. So you need expert advice to understand what is going on, but where do you get such a thing? One possible source is o reach out to your financial adviser, but in general this is not a good idea because those guys make money when you buy stocks and they do not offer unbiased advice. They usually give you the same cookie cutter nonsense of investing for the long term. So you have to realize that you cannot get good financial advice during an unfolding crisis and you should follow the money instead.
If you watch the DOW value, get in the habit to see watch the transaction volume as well. The idea is that large financial institutions do have very serious experts who make decent predictions, and more important, those advice is actually followed. And when large mutual funds decide to make a large move, the volume tells the story. So the advice is simple:
- when DOW drops significantly but the volume is close to the average, don't panic and do nothing.
- when DOW drops significantly and the volume is two to three times the average it is time to sell. The large players decided that the outlook is negative.
- when DOW increases significantly but the volume is close to the average, do nothing.
- when DOW increases significantly and the volume is two to three times the average it is time to buy. The large players decided that the outlook is positive.
Sure, you will miss the first big drop, and the first large increase, but in the long term this does not matter. This advice is for the investors who don't have the stomach for large drops in value. If your tolerance for risk is higher or you have the luxury of a really long term investment period measured in many decades then you should not care about the stock market antics in the first place.
Now on the current China turmoil.
Is this a short storm, or the harbinger of a larger trouble like the Lehman Brothers collapse? Honestly, I don't know, and I think nobody knows either. China is now the second largest economy and any turmoil there has large implications. Also the current trouble is the result of irresponsible advice from Chinese leadership to ordinary citizens to buy stocks in a get rich quick scheme. This created a bubble which now burst. But what will the effect be in the psychology of ordinary Chinese citizens? Would this create unbearable social pressure which will result in the change of the political system? Would this impact the real Chinese economy? Nobody knows because this is a first in the modern history of China. When Lehman collapsed, for a few months there was no economic pain. Everyone was reassured that "the economic fundamentals are strong" and this was just a blimp on the radar. But something funny happened: the usual economic activity simply stopped like a switch was turned off because lending between banks froze solid due to sudden lack of confidence. It took a Keynes style influx of money to get the economic engine restarted.