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The Economist ran an article last week with a funny line that caught my attention. "This was supposed to be a stress-free year for the global economy," it read. Now we have dual crises in Japan and the Middle East. "The year without crisis is not to be," it continued.
The year without crisis? I began asking myself: Has there ever been a year without crisis? Have we ever made it 365 days without something really awful happening? I don't think we have. Ever. In the history of human history. Something big, terrifying, and market-moving happens every year without fail:
2011 (so far): Japan earthquake, Middle East uprising.
2010: European debt crisis; BP (NYSE: BP ) oil spill; flash crash.
2009: Global economy nears collapse.
2008: Oil spikes; Wall Street bailouts; Madoff scandal.
2007: Iraq war surge; beginning of financial crisis.
2006: North Korea tests nuclear weapon; Mumbai train bombings; Israel-Lebanon conflict.
2005: Hurricane Katrina; London terrorist attacks.
2004: Tsunami hits South Asia; Madrid train bombings.
2003: Iraq war; SARS panic.
2002: Post 9/11 fear; recession; WorldCom bankrupt; Bali bombings.
2001: 9/11 terrorist attacks; Afghanistan war; Enron bankrupt; Anthrax attacks.
2000: Dot-com bubble pops; presidential election snafu; USS Cole bombed.
1999: Y2K panic; NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
1998: Russia defaults on debt; LTCM hedge fund meltdown; Clinton impeachment; Iraq bombing.
1997: Asian financial crisis.
1996: U.S. government shuts down; Olympic park bombing.
1995: U.S. government shuts down; Oklahoma City bombing; Kobe earthquake; Barings Bank collapse.
1994: Rwandan genocide; Mexican peso crisis; Northridge quake strikes Los Angeles; Orange County defaults.
1993: World Trade Center bombing.
1992: Los Angeles riots; Hurricane Andrew.
1991: Real estate downturn; Soviet Union breaks up.
1990: Persian Gulf war; oil spike; recession.
(I'm sure I'm forgetting many big events. This is a partial list at best.)
You get the point. You can draw this exercise out as many years as you like. It's always the same: There's no such thing as a crisis-free year. Ever. Some years are worse than others, but they all bring bad news from time to time. It's just how the world works. History is "one damned thing after another," said historian Arnold Toynbee.
Where people fall into trouble is getting stuck in the mind-set that these crises are one-in-a-million events. The perfect storm. The thousand-year flood. It's bogus. In reality, they're just the normal, common path of history. Sure, no one knows exactly what's coming, but something is always coming. What? We don't know. When? Just wait. Bad stuff is invariably lurking around the corner. Put that in stone.
You can look at this a few ways. One, realizing that crises happen every year highlights the need to use debt sparingly, have an emergency fund, keep your resume updated, hug your loved ones, all that stuff. Give yourself room for error. There's the old saying, "No one ever dies wishing they saved more money." Maybe true, but plenty live wishing they had.
Another (better) way to look at this is realizing how much economies can prosper in the face of constant misery. During the 21-year period outlined above, real per-capita GDP increased 33%. The Dow increased almost fivefold, before dividends. Companies like Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) went from niche novelties to global juggernauts. Others like Google (NYSE: GOOG ) , Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) went from garage projects to billion-dollar organizations. Once you look back at the success business has achieved during crisis after crisis, panics tend to smell more like opportunities. The phrase, "this too shall pass" becomes more realistic. Frank Holmes, CEO of U.S. Global Investors, had a great quote last summer tying this all together:
It's a nonevent for stock markets to swing 15% peak-to-trough every year. That's the average. For emerging markets it's 40% per year. Same for gold stocks. That's what you should expect. It's just what markets do: They fluctuate. This scares so many people. But it's important to realize that when they fall, mean reversion becomes a powerful force. The big money to make is when markets are down. Growth is three times greater in emerging-market economics, but there's three times as much volatility. Don't let that scare you. It's normal. Use the volatility to your advantage. Don't become bitter. Become better.
Got a different take? Share it in the comments section below.
Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.