The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. As I write this in July of 2020, a resurgence of infections is causing many state and local leaders to pull back on reopening. Main Street businesses are hard-hit and some will close permanently. Unemployment numbers are projected to rise. The economy has slowed. In our streets, we are witnessing protests and demands for racial justice. It’s also an election year, the outcomes of which could bring sweeping changes to everything from social policies to tax policies to foreign policy.
If I were to describe this period in one word it would be—uncertain. Now, more than ever, we are facing the unknown. When I talk to clients, I hear the unease in their voice. But this is not the first time, as a nation, that we’ve faced hard times. I know that past results are not a guarantee of future results. But the past has many lessons to teach us that can guide us as we move ahead. After reflecting on this situation, I’d like to put forward five ideas for adjusting to our new normal.
WHAT CAN THE PAST TEACH US?
Before we look at those five ideas, I’d like to review how, as a nation, we’ve handled crises in the past. I’ll limit my reflections just to the last century as a guide. From 1900 to 1999, we faced:
- World War I—the war to end all wars
- The Spanish flu pandemic
- The stock market crash
- The Great Depression
- World War II—a truly global conflict
- The Korean War
- The civil rights movement
- The Vietnam War
I believe it is wise to remember these events because they help us put our current situation into context. What we’re facing today may seem like the most awful thing we’ve ever experienced. But as a nation, we’ve faced far more difficult problems.
I don’t want to sound cold-hearted, as if I don’t care about the lives that have been lost or the pain people have endured from COVID. I care very much. I also care about the social change that I hope will produce true equality for all people.
I share this list of trying times to make this one point. We’ve gotten through difficult times in the past and I believe we’ll weather this storm too. In fact, we may come out stronger and with a clearer sense of what matters. But there is one other observation I would make about these events.
Disruption often seems to come in pairs: WWI and the Spanish flu, Vietnam and civil rights, the housing crisis and banking scandals in this century. We seem to be facing our own paired form of disruption right now: COVID-19 and civil unrest from those demanding justice for all. So what can we learn from how we’ve handled these types of situations in the past? I would make two observations:
- Leaders have stepped forward when we’ve really needed them. The most effective leaders have provided clarity when the path forward seemed most uncertain.
- We have become very good problem-solvers. American ingenuity and innovation have guided us through some difficult problems. As a people, we seem to have the ability to rise to the occasion.
Who will the leaders be that will guide us through these trying times? How will we innovate and problem-solve to address COVID-19 and racial equality? I cannot answer those questions. But I believe the answers are coming. They have consistently come in the past and I do not believe it is wise to bet against the American spirit of ingenuity. We shall overcome.
FIVE IDEAS FOR ADJUSTING TO THE NEW NORMAL
Given these lessons learned, I’d like to offer five guiding principles for adjusting to our new normal:
- Recognize the impact of disruption.
- We shouldn’t pretend we know what will happen.
- Fear is our enemy, but risk is our friend.
- Stay informed, but don’t get overwhelmed.
- Focus on your goals and your family.
Most of my commentary from here forward will address the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic impact we are experiencing. My expertise is primarily in financial matters. While I have ideas for addressing the types of social change that will bring about justice for all, that is not really my area of expertise nor the purpose of this article. But let me say for the record that I care very much about social justice. For many years now, I have participated in programs that seek to make a difference, in whatever small ways my contributions might help.
RECOGNIZE THE IMPACT OF DISRUPTION
I would describe what we’ve seen over the last several months as a significant disruption to life as usual. Shelter-in-place orders radically changed the lifestyle of millions of people. But here’s the thing about disruption, at least as it relates to the economy. It’s not all bad news. Disruption tends to produce winners and losers.
For example, right now Caterpillar and Boeing are struggling. But Amazon, Netflix and Google are doing quite well. Then there are the upstarts that are taking advantage of the disruption. Delivery services of all types are thriving. TikTok is hiring thousands of new employees. Most people had never heard of Zoom before this pandemic, but now Zoom has become a standard way for people to hold meetings and even talk to loved ones at a distance.
As the disruption continues, it is entirely possible that even more companies and opportunities will emerge. My message is simply this. If all we see, out of this disruption, are negatives, we might very well miss some of the positives. Disruption can create very attractive opportunities if we are looking for them.
WE SHOULDN’T PRETEND WE KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN
Please understand that I am NOT saying that everything will be fine and this will all be over soon. I have no crystal ball to see the future. In fact, I don’t believe it’s wise for anyone to pretend that they know what will happen. I certainly don’t.
Even though I’m confident that we will overcome this pandemic, that doesn’t mean there won’t be fallout. The economic impact of COVID-19 could be felt for many more quarters, if not years. This is why I’m advising my clients to be flexible, to be nimble and to be ready to pivot. Along with my team and the entire staff at Whitnell, we remain vigilant. We are watching this market closely.
FEAR IS OUR ENEMY, BUT RISK IS OUR FRIEND
Fear constricts the mind, narrows our vision and stimulates a fight-or-flight response. As FDR famously said, all we have to fear is fear itself. One of the major ways that fear hurts us during times of disruption is by hindering our openness to take risks. My colleague David Peckenpaugh wrote an article several years ago called “Risk—Friend Or Enemy?” His core idea, and I think he’s right, is that “calculated risks” are the friend of long-term investors.
The risks you take should be considered carefully and in consultation with a financial advisor who deeply understands you, your goals, resources and family. But people who refuse to take risks probably won’t see returns over time. I believe the right question to ask ourselves right now is—what kinds of risk should we be taking? Some of the opportunities we are seeing now may not come around again for a very long time.
STAY INFORMED, BUT DON’T GET OVERWHELMED
There are more 24-hour news channels on TV today than ever in my lifetime. Traditional print newspapers and magazines now offer online versions in addition to printed copies. Blogging has given rise to countless analysts and pundits, some of whom seem to me to be highly qualified while others are of a more suspicious nature.
With all of these “news” sources, it should be easier than ever to stay informed, right? I’m not sure this is true. There are a lot of opinions, projections and forecasts. But not all sources are equal. My colleague David Peckenpaugh has appropriately characterized the situation we face today: so much information, so little wisdom.
My advice is to carefully consider where you get your news and what qualifies that source to be trustworthy. My sense is that getting news from three or four legitimate sources on a consistent basis should be more than enough to stay informed and benefit from differing perspectives. But more than anything, at some point I believe you have to turn it off. Those who become addicted to a steady diet of “late breaking news” seem to me to have little peace of mind compared to those who limit their intake.
FOCUS ON YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR GOALS
While COVID-19 has certainly impacted businesses, the impact on families is no less profound. Before this pandemic, I couldn’t imagine a situation where grandparents and grandchildren not only couldn’t hug each other but couldn’t be in the same room together. Some of the saddest stories I’ve heard are of loved ones passing away completely alone because their family members couldn’t be with them.
Right now, families really need each other. The uncertainty that we are all feeling should bring us closer together, to huddle and to share. I believe that in trying times, we need to really focus on those things we can control and try to avoid worrying about those things we can’t control.
The other thing that I hope brings you peace of mind is knowing that Whitnell has your back. We are watching this situation closely and reviewing each client’s unique situation. If your goals have changed, we certainly want to hear about it so we can update your plan. But if your goals have not changed, your current plan might just be the best possible scenario for your family.
Difficult times often create disruption that is hard to cope with, creating stress and a feeling of not being able to breathe. The ideas I’ve put forward here can help you and your loved ones weather this storm and possibly come out stronger on the other side. If I can help you or someone you care about, please reach out for a conversation.
© 2020 Whitnell & Co. The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only.