You may not recall that day 10 years ago when investment banker Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy, but if you had any money in the stock market you definitely must remember the fallout.
By the height of the financial crisis — triggered in large part by the demise of Lehman — my own retirement portfolio was down more than 30 percent. I was scared and hopping mad.
I did what they — the experts, financial advisers, etc. — had said to do. I was diversified. I had been faithfully saving in my 401(k) retirement account.
But then poof!
“Investment banking giant Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy after the federal government signaled that there would be no bailout,” Fortune reported last September on the nine-year anniversary of the crisis. “With assets of $638 billion, and debts of $613 billion partly spurred by heavy losses from mortgage-backed securities, the bankruptcy was the largest in U.S. history. It only added to the panic already building in markets. The S&P 500 had been steadily falling from its peak in late 2008 as worries surrounding the housing bubble and subprime housing crisis grew. The index would continue sliding as unemployment spiked to 10 percent and six homes were foreclosed on every minute until early 2009.”
I felt the pain. I lost so much money — on paper — that I nearly panicked. I was ready to pull back and put all my retirement money in cash.
My husband had to talk me down.
I know. I write about personal finance, and I knew that running toward the safety of cash would lock in my losses. And low yielding savings won’t help you keep pace with inflation. I knew all of that.
Yet, my family has a financial history of investing in real estate — land in North Carolina, personal residences. I was taught to save in a bank deposit account. Shoot, even a certificate of deposit was a big deal. My grandmother Big Mama, my financial mentor, didn’t trust the stock market. The only bond she ever had was the bond adhesive for her dentures.
It took bucking my fear to stay put. And I’m grateful I did. I’ve gotten back — on paper — all that I lost and then some. Investors who didn’t jump out of the market saw substantial gains in their retirement accounts, so much so that it pushed many to millionaire status.
“If an investor had decided stay in through that volatility, they would have seen their portfolio rise about 2.5 times including dividends,” Fortune pointed out.
I recently reached out to some financial experts for their perspective on what investors lost and what they have learned about it.
Q: What was the impact of the financial crisis on investors?
Former secretary of labor Robert Reich: “What did regular investors lose? Not much. If they stayed in the stock market, they're better off now than they were before the crash. Some lost much of their savings and decided to get out of the market — and didn't get the benefit of the subsequent upturn. They're the ones who got hit the worst.”
Jon Stein, co-founder and CEO, Betterment financial adviser: “So many people lost their retirement savings when the markets crashed, and that really has a lasting effect. At the time, I saw my portfolio crash, too, but I had investing experience so it wasn’t as big of a shock for me. Seeing how the crisis affected people’s lives was a big part of why I founded Betterment in 2008. People were turning their backs on traditional Wall Street institutions, and that ultimately worked in our favor. Some of Betterment’s first customers had stories about personally losing money, or a close family member that sold everything at the bottom. I really wanted to change the financial model and offer an affordable, transparent service that prioritized people’s well being."
Watch this video from Investopedia: Jon Stein on Building Betterment
Don Blandin, president and CEO, Investor Protection Trust: “In addition to money, investors also lost retirement savings growth since it has taken years for investors to build back — and continue building — what they lost. Some lost their jobs and, the greatest financial asset for a large number of Americans, their homes.”
Q: The economy is doing well, and that often makes people’s memories of bad times fade. Another downturn — most likely even a recession — is inevitable. How can people protect themselves?
Reich: “Know that home prices don't always head upward, so don't put all your savings into buying a home. Know that over the long term, the stock market continues to be a good investment.”
Blandin: “Learn from the past. Consider taking new approaches while keeping the same strategies that have worked. Investors hit hardest by the Great Recession have shifted focus to safer stocks with the goal of steadier returns, even if they’re a long way from retirement. While it’s good to have safer assets in your portfolio (e.g. safer stocks or bonds), remember there is always risk in investing. And without more volatile stocks in your allocation mix, you lose the opportunity for more growth over time. Regardless of what hits your portfolio has taken or may experience in the future, diversification and sticking to your retirement plan and goals can help you weather the storm.”
Q: What should people be doing specifically to weather the next storm?
Blandin: “Going forward, we need to be more diligent about our finances, the good and the bad. I strongly recommend that investors start — and continue — educating yourselves by utilizing resources that exist to help you in your stage of life [and] then share them with your friends, parents and grandparents. Go with a fiduciary as your financial adviser, a professional who is legally and ethically obligated to put you first and avoid conflicts of interest. Explore events and workshops in your community, such as Financial Planning Days organized by Financial Planning Association chapters, where you can receive pro bono counseling. Another event you may want to consider is the Investor Protection Trust’s Investor Education and Protection Forum and 25th Anniversary Event in Oklahoma City from September 13-15. The forum will bring together leaders in the investor education and protection field to learn from other experts and to share expertise and best practices. The event is free and all are welcome. Email email@example.com to register and view the agenda."
I'll leave you with this advice from Blandin: “When we repeat mistakes, we repeat consequences.”
Looking back, what have you learned from the last financial crisis? Have you recovered? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city and state. Put “Financial Crisis 10 Years Later” in the subject line.
Please Note: I’m taking off from writing the next two newsletters to recover from a fall. I fell and fractured my ankle in two places. The next scheduled newsletter will return Thursday Sept. 20th.
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