I'd like to pass along some insight to young investors, who might not be familiar with the quirky relationship between the feelings of fellowship that spring from our innate sense of decency and the raw self-interest that characterizes personal finance.
My insight is this: If you're just starting out, expect to notice a strange twist where good is bad and bad is good, and know you'll often have a stake in others' misfortune.
Let's say, for instance, that your investments depend on low inflation. Then one day, every company in the S&P 500 goes belly-up and throws millions of employees out on the street. That's a catastrophe on par with a collapse of the Milky Way. But for you, it's money in the bank, since it means a slower economy and stable prices.
On the other hand, suppose those same firms announce they're rolling in so much dough that they're going to give away enough money to eradicate poverty. Some will see this as a herald of peace on earth. In fact, it's a calamity, for widespread prosperity -- and the consumer overspending that always comes with it -- will overheat the economy, inflame inflation, and slowly erode your gains.
I was awakened to the bad-is-good phenomenon a few years ago while shopping for a mortgage. Not once until that point in my life had I deployed the lowliest neuron to consideration of the debt markets.
But with a monthly nut on the line, the Long Bond suddenly became a passion. I read Liar's Poker -- that raucous insider's yarn about the mortgage-backed securities market -- six times. Such stories!
I soon saw that bad news for the world could be very good for me indeed. Economy plunging into the dumper? Great! The Fed will cut rates, and I'll save $3.26 a month for the next 30 years.
It's amusing at first, hoping for the worst. But over time, it can make for an ambiguous moral inner life. When I bought gold, I prayed for war. When I bought oil, I rooted for OPEC. I could've been shot for treason, but it mattered not. I finally had to give up commodities altogether to preserve a reed of self-respect.
Lately, I've wrestled with the Lucent issue. The one thing you can count on from Lucent
But I'm also a Lucent shareholder. I bought at $78, then at $53, $29, $12, and finally $2 before I detected a trend. It's now about 75 cents. But whenever the mugs who run that shop announce a new swath of layoffs, the stock ignites. That's because "the market" hates overhead, especially "payroll," otherwise known as people. As a shareholder, I hate people, too. Down with people!
Recently, Lucent said it would lop another 5,000 jobs, and the stock surged 25% in one day. Granted, that brought its share value in line with the Italian lire circa 1946, but at least it's moving in the right direction.
The good-is-bad phenomenon has implications for war with Iraq. On the one hand, I love my country and hate Saddam. For the record, I stand firmly against nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the hands of lunatics. But on the other hand, I'll need a pretty good idea of how much we'll be paying to gas up the minivan before I commit to regime change.
If you've got a conscience, you're sure to feel uncomfortable by all this hoping for the worst. But if you've got expenses and aspirations -- college, retirement, a new MP3 player -- you'll get used to it, and learn to embrace others' misery. Just as I'm doing now that I'm refinancing my mortgage.
Remember: Investing, like life, is about making choices. And making money. Without getting too squeamish about either one.
Rich "Snake" Pliskin is a humor writer who lives in Princeton, N.J. Sadly, he's a Lucent shareholder, but he no longer directly owns commodities. He can be reached at email@example.com.