Pandemic people watching

David MoonBlog

The coronavirus has taught us quite a bit in the past month, even if all of it isn’t true. We’ve learned about flattening the curve and social distancing. And although the primary purpose of Facebook is to propagate misinformation and feed narcissists’ egos, the social media platform can actually be used for good when some kids don’t have ready replacements for their lost school lunches.

I’ve learned quite a bit about people. After my third email message within about 10 days to our clients, one of them texted me, telling me that my communiques were appreciated, but a waste of time. “Rational people like me don’t need it, and emotional people like my spouse won’t read it.” When someone is being emotional, you simply irritate them by trying to influence them with logic.

Or, as Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan noted about the pandemic, “‘don’t panic’ is rotten advice.” If someone is scared, their fear is the same whether their bogeyman is an imaginary two-headed monster or a 20 percent reduction in their net worth.

Some investors have surprised me with their quasi-panic in reaction to the stock price declines, but I have been most surprised by the young people who have contacted me interested in buying stocks. One young lady wanted to know how much she might make on a $250 investment when (she didn’t say “if”) the market gets back to normal. Another young parent wanted to invest his entire $3,000 tax refund in stocks. If you’re 20 years old, stocks have been in a constant bull market since you were in the fourth grade. It’s all you know. It’s emotionally easy to risk your entire net worth, especially when you’re poor. But your reaction is much different if you’re 55 years old, remember the 2007-09 stock decline and have a lot more money now than you did then.

When things have been so good for so long, it is easy to overlook or irrationally discount risk. People investing with borrowed funds are learning that leverage also works to the downside, not just on the way up. Investors with income needs from their fully-invested stock portfolios are learning that holding some cash is prudent.

Non-investors are, or will, likewise learn about the virtue of cash. The Federal Reserve tells us that 39 percent of Americans don’t have $400 in excess cash readily available for an emergency.  A great deal of those people are about to suffer income reductions or outright eliminations, at least for some period. It may seem privileged and cold-hearted to say this, but when this crisis eventually passes, there are a bunch of people who need to reevaluate how they spend their time and their money.

Conditions are expected to be very difficult for the next few months, both economically and emotionally.  But the world can only end once; I’m guessing this isn’t it.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.