The Mirror Image of 900%

The stock market is a world of numbers, an done of the nice things is that there are several ways to look at these figures.

900%: it's a nice round figure that's on everybody's lips these days. that's how much the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange is supposed to have returned to investors over the last 15 years, from 1992 to date. And it is not as though those 15 years were exactly a stroll through the meadow: two crashes, Rabin's murder, the destruction of the peace process, the resumption of the intifada, the tech bubble, wars in the Gulf, collapse of the Nasdaq bubble, and countless other political and diplomatic upheavals - yet Israeli investors made 900% (or, 360% in real terms).

One obvious conclusion is that long-term investors may have taken some painful blows, but if they stuck in there, they earned more than investors in more conservative avenues did.

But that optimistic picture has unhappier aspects to it, too.

In January 1992, the TASE was at 100 points. True. The second Rabin government, the Oslo agreements and economic growth raised local stocks nicely. At the start of 1994, the blue-chips index was at 260 points. And then came a crash and the index fell 150 points.

Take Yossi

Take Yossi, who saw all his friends earn beautifully all year, and finally decided to get into the market too. But he got in right before the 1994 crash.

He got in, and left his money there for 13 years, in fact it's still there. He wept during the 1994 crash and rejoiced in the 2000 bounce. He hurt the downturn of 2000-2002 and has been applauding for the last four years. But Yossi didn't make 900%. He made 300% in nominal terms, or less than 100% in real terms.

Yossi represents a lot of little investors, because sadly, they're the ones who tend to jump in just as the gains accelerate: the entire social/media system supports him getting in.

What will Moshe say?

And what about Moshe, who got in with Yossi in 1994, but who broke and fled? Moshe saw his investment shrinking, but he held in there. He managed to double his investment in 2000, when the indexes touched 500, but then the crash came and his portfolio started losing air again.

Come 2002, when stocks just lost ground from day to day, and Moshe couldn't take it any more. He pulled out his money and put it into fixed-income deposits, generating more than 10% a year. That was better than stocks had done for him over eight years, he figured.  "At least I can sleep in peace," he added to himself.

Oh, Moshe, what a mistake. He got out in 2002 with the market at 300. Nine years of investments, from 1994 to 2003, brought him a nominal gain of 15% and a huge loss, in real terms.

The stock market roller coaster is a terrifying ride, everywhere, not only in Israel. George put money into Nasdaq at 5,000 points and will never recoup his investment. Natalie got in when Nasdaq was at 3,000 and has a way to go, but hasn't lost hope.

Japanese stocks still haven't fully recovered the ground lost since the 1980s. We can also assume that people who got into Wall Street right before the 1929 crash probably cashed in their chips before they recouped their investment: it was only after a world war and a quarter-century, in 1954, that the Dow Jones returned to its pre-crash level.

To sum up, investing for the long run really is a way to beat the odds. But you have to remember that a big bubble builds up every few decades and it gets followed by a big crash. And that spoils all the pretty numbers. If you invest right before the crash, you're in trouble.

Can that conclusion be of any help to Yossi or Moshe or Natalie, at least regarding future investments? Maybe. All that can be said, is try not to exit your stocks in the dip, and don't get in right before the crash.  Naturally, that's some trick. When Nasdaq was at 3,000, some investors thought they'd better get out and while about it, bet on the opposite direction. At 4,500, they got back in.