Ah, to be Rip Van Winkle! Just imagine if we could have fallen asleep last New Year’s Eve and are only just now stirring awake wondering what we’ve missed. No doubt we’d be vigorously scratching our proverbial long and scraggly beards as we peruse this year’s dark headlines.
Unbeknownst to us as we blissfully snored away to start 2020, an insidious and novel virus had begun to spread inside and outside China. At first, it seemed like a far away risk. Images of hazmat-suited workers spraying disinfectant in the streets seemed benign and, yes, very foreign. A few weeks later, a storm hit our shores like none other.
Relying on all of our American exceptionalism and optimism, it took the stock market until late February to finally stop rising. In a blink of an eye – just one short month later – not only were the stock market’s big gains from 2019 gone, but essentially all of Trump’s sacred stock market boom since late 2016 had vanished.
Luckily for us, slumbering away like Rip Van Winkle, things were about to get very, very troubling.
Recognizing the speed of the financial meltdown in early March, the Federal Reserve took action only it could take. Within two weeks, the Fed cut interest rates back to zero and, for all intents and purposes, pledged to try to backstop financial markets. Putting this into perspective, it took the Fed six years to buy $4 trillion in financial assets after the Great Financial Crisis. In just eight weeks during this current crisis, the Fed added yet another $3 trillion to the mix. Perhaps more importantly, they promised investors unlimited support for as long as it would take.
Within days, Congress joined the fight and authorized its own $3 trillion of financial aid to both individuals and businesses. Unemployment benefits were boosted dramatically for the tens of millions of workers who were instantly out of work. Direct payments were also sent to nearly every household. About one in ten mortgages and nearly every student loan was given a repayment holiday. Last but not least, about six million businesses were given free government money to keep paying the workers they chose to keep around.
Despite the shutdown’s initial success in bending the curve, the virus once again spread over the summer months and experts were sounding the alarm about the colder seasons to come. In the face of these threats, Congress let its financial aid programs end in August. One logically could have assumed that this level of inaction – both in mitigating the virus and buffering the economy – would have stirred the financial markets awake to the ongoing risks that were apparent late in the summer.
Well, today, with our eyes now finally opening, we find ourselves in a truly peculiar world. It’s been quite a year to be wide awake the whole time. If only we had peacefully slept our way through it all. Ah, to be Rip Van Winkle!
Jason P. Tank, CFA is both the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a purely fee-only advisory firm and the founder of the Money Series, a non-profit program committed to providing open-access to financial education, for all. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at [email protected] and at www.FrontStreet.com