Discover What’s Normal

Before getting into the financial column, let me say that you who are watching after and attending to the health of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic are my heroes. YOU are America’s heroes. I pray all of you have adequate PPE, are taking universal precautions, and are staying healthy yourselves as you care for those whom you serve. Our country, indeed, the world, needs you now more than ever.

We hear the term “normal” thrown about a lot these days as if “normal” is a good thing. A “new normal” is wished for and described with a lot of uncertainty about what it really means. “Getting back to normal,” as though something about pre-COVID 19 established normalcy. As I write this, having been thoroughly committed to social distancing now for about 5 months, I could feel normal if I were simply able to go mask-free to the grocery store or to family supper at grandma’s house on Sunday night without concern of infecting someone or being infected.

Surely you would agree we all must wonder whether our current state is “normal.”

It has long been my goal to help others, in whatever circumstance and in whatever stage of life, to see the possibilities of their future, to seize upon opportunities, and to avert future problems through better decisions today. That, to me, is what financial planning is all about and what should drive investment decisions.

Early in my financial planning career (mid 1980s) almost nobody was thinking about the impact that generational thinking would have on their finances. Now, thanks to the late William Strauss and his colleague, Neil Howe, nearly everybody brings up aspects of generations. Think here Boomer, Silent, Gen X, Millennial, etc.

Years ago, I was captivated by Strauss and Howe’s 1997 book called The Fourth Turning, the first line of which is “America feels like it’s unraveling.” In it, they set out their theory that history runs in Saecula, a long-lived life, or a period of 80-100 years. Within each saecula, explain Strauss and Howe, there are four turnings: High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis. The pandemic has led me to return to their research, thankfully kept up to date by Howe at lifecourse.com. While I firmly believe history does not repeat itself, I do believe in cycles, the seasons of life. 2020 sure feels like a metaphorical winter (and a ridiculously long one at that!) Thinking about seasons helps me as I try to make sense of our economy, which has historically run in cycles, and the great changes that are taking place right before our eyes.

If we despair, we see our current crisis in negative terms… the Chinese word for crisis is either danger or opportunity.”— Scott Neal

According to Strauss and Howe, the unraveling is inevitably followed by a crisis. Arguably, our current crisis was ushered in by the Great Recession of 2008. Crises, according to these authors, can only be resolved by a climactic period or event. In America, the last catastrophic crisis was the Great Depression and it was resolved by the climactic event of WWII. Respected advisors and economists have written it may take 7 to 10 years for us to recover from the economic fallout caused by the pandemic. (I can easily see it taking longer than that.) If they are right, most of the 2020s decade will be spent finding resolution to the current crisis we are experiencing. We may as well get used to what now seems to be the current “normal.”

What was your favorite childhood toy? One of my favorites was a periscope. I enjoyed the life of a junior spy as I looked around corners and over walls without being seen.

No, today I don’t own a periscope, or even a crystal ball, but we do have access to modeling tools that help us plan for almost any contingency, even our ever-changing economic climate. So, given our current “Normal” and the expectation we may spend at least the next 7-10 years resolving our current crisis, we would do well to recognize and assess the issues facing today’s various generations and use our collective wisdom to make sound decisions, individually and as a country, as we update our financial plans and make investments.

Mental health professionals are telling us what we already know: social distancing and isolation are leading a huge segment of our society to a pessimistic worldview. If we begin to despair, we will probably see our current crisis only in negative terms. Most ironically, the Chinese word for “crisis” is interpreted as either danger or opportunity.

So, where do we see the opportunities today?

Through the lens of history, Neil Howe sees the crisis in America as a time for the strengthening of families, the championing of new ideals, and the development of a simplified workable worldview. From his website, “it is a time when institutional life is torn down and rebuilt from the ground up…. Cultural expression finds a community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group.… Fourth Turnings have eventually become new ‘founding moments’ in America’s history, refreshing and redefining the national identity.” The need for us to get this right cannot be overstated.

Now is the time for Boomers (me included) to become the gray champions of our young people who are coming of age during this era. What if we choose to see the much-maligned Millennials through a different lens? I see a healthy paradigm shift such that we choose to respect their emergence as the necessary hero archetypes who, according to Howe, “show many traits similar to those of the G.I. youth, including rising civic engagement, improving behavior, and collective confidence.”

I challenge you to join me in assessing what we have learned over these past few months by asking ourselves some questions recently posed by Michael Hyatt on his podcast:

I have stopped doing some things as a result of the pandemic. What were they? And can I well do without them moving forward?

I started doing many things that I had not done before the pandemic. What are they? And should I keep them moving forward?

The pandemic has made possible some things previously thought to be impossible. What were they? What are the benefits?

We are in just the beginning phase of a drastic business transformation which will lead to some unique investment opportunities for those with a vision and a moderate aversion to risk. At the time of this writing, the S&P 500 has nearly recovered all that it declined in March 2020. However, that does not tell the whole story. The gains have primarily come from 10 companies out of the 500. Can you afford to ignore these opportunities?

As we assess our position, it will perhaps be worthwhile to focus on the digital revolution. Artificial intelligence, work-at-home technologies, telematics, robotics, telehealth, and electric/autonomous vehicles seem to be good places to start. Despite the high level of unemployment, bankruptcies, decline in GDP, trade wars, tariffs, government stimulus, and relief programs, there are some businesses doing well. Call or write and let’s have a conversation about where you are and where you want to go.

Scott Neal is president and CEO of D. Scott Neal, Inc., a fee-only financial planning and investment advisory firm with offices in Lexington and Louisville and the ability to teleconference anywhere via ZOOM. Call him at 1-800-344-9098 or visit his blog at dscottneal.com.