Waiting for the end of the world as we know it hasn't worked well as an investment strategy the last few years.So how about this summer?
Things have been positively wondrous for global stock markets in recent months, but Wall Street has been echoing with warnings of trouble ahead.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan last week helped trigger the latest flutter in share prices after he said of the wild rally in Chinese stocks, "There is going to be a dramatic contraction at some point."
Sure, describe the event, but leave it open ended. Someday you're bound to be right.
Warnings about hot markets do serve a purpose, of course. They may keep people from becoming, well, irrationally exuberant and dumping all of their money into one asset just before it collapses.
But there's a danger that investors who listen to constant fretting about how bad things might get in the economy and markets can end up paralyzed with fear and unwilling to take even minimal risks. That may cost them dearly in terms of their long-term financial health.
There's always something to worry about. Yet look at what the world's stock markets have overcome in recent years: record oil prices, rising short-term interest rates, devastating terrorist attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005) and, most recently, a serious U.S. housing slump.
There should be a fundamental reason stocks have forged ahead, and here it is: The global economy has continued to expand, lifting corporate earnings.
To be sure, easy money also is driving markets. Lenders around the planet remain eager to lend and borrowers remain eager to borrow.
Some Wall Street veterans say easy money has led to rank speculation and dangerous bubbles in assets everywhere."From Indian antiquities to modern Chinese art; from land in Panama to Mayfair; from forestry, infrastructure and the junkiest bonds to mundane blue chips; it's bubble time!" Jeremy Grantham, chairman of Boston money manager GMO LLC, wrote in a letter to clients last month.
We are living, he said, in "the first truly global bubble."
Maybe. But some people said much the same thing two years ago, when commodities, stocks and real estate were streaking in unison. As for Grantham, whose firm manages $145 billion, he has been negative on U.S. stocks for four years, so he may have left a lot of money on the table. (Although, to his credit, he was a fan of emerging-market shares before many investors hopped aboard in 2005 and 2006.)
What a pessimistic investor calls a bubble, an optimist might say is just a fantastic, and justifiable, bull market. That's the view of Edward Yardeni, who heads his own investment and economic research firm in New York.
Yardeni believes the world has not seen a global economic boom on the current scale, with China, India and other developing nations now full-on capitalists and with money flowing so easily and quickly into investment opportunities worldwide.
"If this is the greatest global boom of all times, then why wouldn't we have the greatest global bull markets in stocks and commodities of all times?" Yardeni asked.
And though experienced investors are conditioned to run the other way when someone declares a "new era" for the economy or markets, sometimes it is a new era. Case in point: What else would you call the 20 years after 1980, a period in which U.S. inflation and interest rates were in a sustained decline and stocks mostly marched higher.
To be a buyer of stocks in general now, you pretty much have to believe we're in a new era of global growth--and that we're somewhere near the start or in the middle of it, not approaching a calamitous end.
Even if Yardeni is right about an ongoing boom, however, there are going to be serious disruptions along the way. At the moment, the deepening trade disputes between the U.S. and China pose one significant risk. So do rising bond yields.
A year ago, jitters over frenzied gains in stocks and fear of inflation pressures triggered a five-week pullback in share prices around the globe. The declines were much worse in many foreign markets than in the U.S., exposing the soft underbelly of overseas investing: a lack of liquidity when you need it most.
The next market disruption, whatever the trigger, may play out the same. That's why many Wall Street pros continue to warn clients away from emerging markets for now, despite their longer-term economic promise.
If stocks scare you at these levels, then the prudent decision is to put off buying, and perhaps to start pruning. Nobody ever went broke taking a profit.
But as the last four years have shown, you also have to allow for the possibility, or perhaps probability, that the world as we know it isn't ending--and that the global economy will keep expanding, other bullish trends will stay in place, and stock market pullbacks will be opportunities to pick up some appealing long-term investments for less.
Tom Petruno is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Co. newspaper.