Thursday, November 20, 2008

What we've learned from the economic crisis

In an open letter to two his two daughters published this week, Money Magazine assistant managing editor Pat Regnier recently mused on what the current economic crisis has taught us, and how his children -- and really all of us -- can benefit by learning from the mistakes that were made before it all came crashing down. I love this letter because it's simple, reflective and neatly summarizes how current sentiment came to fruition.

What we're experiencing now is indeed a historical event -- one that we may not see again in our lifetimes, at least to this degree. It's important for us, like Regnier, to pass on any reflective wisdom we've managed to pull from the situation so we can educate future generations to not make the same mistakes. Granted, it's normal for the economy to go through recessions and experience both ups and downs, but this is a "down" moment we can all learn from:

Dear Lucy and Emile,

You are both too young to read this letter now. But in a decade or so, I suspect you'll be hearing about the events of autumn 2008 in your history class. You might wonder what it felt like to live through a global crisis. And when you learn about the years just before the crash -- the houses that magically doubled in value, the no-questions-asked mortgages -- you'll surely ask what all of us crazy old folks could have been thinking. I'd like to take a stab at answering those questions today, while the events are still raw and before we know how this story ends. Your mom and I are learning some big lessons right now, ones we might not recall so well after the good times return.

First let's talk about the hardest question: Why didn't people see this coming? Well, we sort of did. Talk of a real estate bubble was common by 2003. But bubbles do funny things to your head -- you'll see that when your generation's bubble comes along. You may read in your textbooks about the euphoria and optimism of boom times, but what I remember most was the worry.

In 2005, a year when home values in our neighborhood jumped 25%, your mother and I would talk anxiously about not having a giant mortgage. We didn't want to stretch for a loan before we had saved for a big down payment. That conservatism hurt: Our chances of joining what was called the ownership society seemed to become more remote with each uptick in real estate prices. We were worried that our new family would never be financially secure. Or even truly at home.

So this is how you'll know when a strong market has turned into a bubble. If you stick to prudent rules you learned before the market took off, you are bound to feel at least a little bit stupid for a while. Learn to regard that sinking feeling in your gut as a sign that you are doing something right.

Another thing we're discovering is how quickly the rules can change. For years the good jobs were in construction, real estate and, of course, financial services. All those industries are shrinking right now. And for Dad, who has spent most of his adult life either working in or writing about finance, this is...uncomfortable.

I wish I had a few more tricks up my sleeve. Unfortunately, it's hard to fully hedge your career bets -- there are a lot of struggling actor-waiters, but I know only one money manager-neurologist (my magazine's own William Bernstein).

At least educate yourself to be flexible. Try to hone a couple of concrete but transferable skills, such as writing plus some basic science (and not just the "rocks for jocks" courses). Keep learning after 21, and take some career risks -- but stretch for experience, not just money. Do this especially early on, when the cost of failure is low.

Finally, remember that it's not all about you. The next couple of years are going to be bumpy, and one of the odd consolations is that it's happening to everybody. A financial or career setback is slightly less ego-bursting when you can blame it on a bum economy. By the same token, though, that means you ought to be humble about your success when the wind is at your back. The practical lesson is to live a bit below your means in the flush years to give yourself some backup.

But more important, back up others. My deepest regret today isn't how much I saved or what I did at work but how little I've pitched in - with money, with time - in our community. It's obvious to me now, when I'm anxious about what's ahead for my own family, how important it is for people to pull together. Wasn't that just as true a year ago, when plenty of folks were already hurting? I've learned this year that I owe much more. And I'm writing this down so the two of you can hold me to that.

Love, Dad

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