Taking Stock / Don't Say You Didn't Know

You got out of jail free this time. You recouped your losses. Don't expect to get that lucky again.

They said you didn't understand what was being bought for you. They said they didn't consult with you, that the capital-market reforms were forcing you into the stock market against your will.

They said you didn't understand that your money was financing clever wheeler-dealer developers investing in Russia and Las Vegas properties. They said you needed protection, safety nets, to be rescued, to be subsidized.

Admit it, you started to think it was true, that they really were looking out for your best interest. That you couldn't have known, that nobody warned you about the evils of the reforms. That those losses you suffered weren't your fault.

We thought different. The reform that brought savers' money in provident funds, training funds, executive insurance schemes and pension funds into the open market began 20 years ago. After three crashes of various magnitudes, you should have a perfect understanding of the risks entailed in the various investment avenues.

But we don't mean to revert to that old argument. It isn't relevant anymore. A miracle has happened, a miracle that (by definition) nobody could have expected. The capital markets in Israel and the world have recovered. In the space of five months they've staged a comeback. Asset prices have recovered, whether 50% or 100% of their value, and most long-term investment vehicles in Israel have regained peak values. You, dear reader, have recouped your losses.

Luckily, most of you grimly hung on. You stayed the course. You didn't flee, dumping your holdings in these long-term vehicles that invest in stocks, corporate bonds and government bonds. You didn't exit your executive insurance policy or pension fund. Some of you moved your money into more conservative avenues, but most of you did nothing at all. Not because of your remarkable cool, but mainly because if there's one thing that typifies most long-term savers, it's inaction. You don't make decisions as far as these savings are concerned, and generally speaking, it worked in your favor.

By now you know a few things.

* You know that the investment portfolios of provident funds, executive insurance schemes, pension funds and training funds are actually pretty risky and volatile. They may generate lovely double-digit returns during boom years, but that also means that come the bust, they can lose in double digits too.

* You know that bonds, including government bonds, aren't "solid." Long-term bonds maturing in five to 25 years can shrink in value, again by double digits, when interest rates are rising. Unlinked bonds can do the same when inflation rises a notch.

* You know that the main reason for the recovery in the capital markets this year isn't that the world's economic problems have been solved, or that the biggest economies thoroughly cleared up credit abuses, or that the banks really cleaned out their balance sheets and their acts, while about it. You know that the main reason for the recovery is that central banks around the world lowered interest rates to rock-bottom, or even negative figures (after accounting for inflation), and you know that governments poured trillions of dollars into their economies to pump them up by force. You also know that these ungentle therapies could sow the seeds of the next crisis.

* You know that every penny you set aside from now on in provident funds, training funds and so on is less likely to generate high returns. Interest on investments is at rock-bottom and risk premiums are collapsing again. Your shekel just isn't as meaty as it used to be.

Now that you know all that, you have to make your decisions on your own. Nobody's going to make them for you. If you can't emotionally handle fluctuations and can't stomach losses, if the roller-coaster of the capital market makes you nauseous, then you won't get a share of the profits when the good times roll around. If you can't tolerate losing half your money during the bust, you can't "afford" to invest in instruments that will profit handsomely, but only at certain times.

At the moment, you're glorying in the "pardon" you received from the central banks and governments of the world. They made sure you recoup your losses from the great economic meltdown and gave you a special opportunity to get out of dangerous assets, if you want to get out, without losing your pants - and that's less than a year after the worst financial crisis in history began.

You could argue that the very fact of the rapid recovery proves that fluctuations are nothing to fear - that the capital market generates gains for investors in the short run as well, not only in the long run, and one mustn't panic.

We think otherwise. You see, after the last few months of gains, the American stock market is roughly where it was a decade ago. If not for the bottom-crawling interest rates, most investors would still be deep in the red on their investments. Placing a large proportion of one's investment portfolio in stocks and other high-risk financial assets is the right thing only for people with iron stomachs and steel nerves who can stay in the game for very long stretches.

But it's your decision. You have received a sharp, painful reminder of what the risks are. Now you know what sort of surprises may lurk in wait for those who seek higher returns. You got a free pass this time and may continue to gallop on shares, corporate bonds or whatever high-risk steeds catch your fancy. If you are persistent over time and manage to minimize the fees you pay, you have a good chance of making money. If you zigzag you're more likely to fall, and the only ones in clover will be the managers of the companies and investment banks.

The one thing you don't have anymore is the right to whimper and blame other people, the media or government for your losses come the next crisis. And it will come. The only thing we can promise you is that nobody can foretell when it will come: It will be an utter surprise, and as always, it will be completely different than the last one.