Nowhere near the panic button 

Maybe if I were more financially savvy, I’d be alarmed by the collapse of several banks over the weekend. As it stands, I’m mostly just preparing myself to ride out some choppy financial waters in the short term. The markets don’t currently seem to be in a panic, so I’m opting not to be either. After all, if the markets do decide it’s time to panic, it’s mostly too late for me to do anything about it anyway. 

Over the last 20-odd years, I like to think my approach to most financial contagion has been to shrug and keep buying every other week. As a young, new investor, I bought into the teeth of the collapse of the dotcom bubble, then through the Great Recession, and most recently through the panicked COVID-19 sell off. Not being a finance guy or an economist, most of what I know comes from history – and that’s that every squirrely period of economic chaos eventually ends. Over a sufficient enough period, every bad time, including the Great Depression, has ended with markets making new highs. 

The trick, of course, is simply to hang on and don’t even think about locking in your losses. It’s a trick, because, as they say, the markets can absolutely remain irrational longer than you the individual can remain solvent. Assuming the House of Representatives doesn’t insist on allowing the federal government to default in a few months, I’m not especially worried about staying solvent. If it goes the other way, how well my philosophy holds up gets a bit murkier.

In any case, I’m nowhere near the panic button despite how much the finical news reporters insist on wringing their hands.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Spring mix. Look, a hungry tortoise needs to eat. I’m slowly working on getting George to accept pelletized dry food as a supplement, but it’s a hard sell for a boy who was raised from day one eating fresh leafy greens. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a shortage of spring mix, kale, or collared greens, but I still have to schlep out to get them… and that happens just about every 4th or 5th day, because fresh greens get slimy in a hurry. I’m a past master at drying off and storing spring mix in layers of paper towels, but what I really need is for that stuff to just last for another day or two before turning to slime so I can knock down the mandatory trips out of the house from two each week to one. 

2. Masks. Reports are that the CDC is considering recommending everyone where a mask when they leave home, which is exactly counter to the recommendation that the general public didn’t need masks that they’ve been pushing for weeks. Adjusting to new information is fine, it’s how science is supposed to work. Except it can’t work that way right now. The CDC suddenly recommending that everyone should wear a mask when there aren’t enough of them in the supply chain to satisfy the demand just of the medical community is irresponsible. Sending 300+ million people out to panic buy masks will make them even harder to acquire. Even if it is the best medical advice, in the current environment it doesn’t make sense.

3. Essential. A former boss of mine could always be counted on to remind you that “words have meaning” whenever you wrote something that wasn’t exactly the way he would have put it. The thing is, you see, he wasn’t wrong. Words absolutely have meaning. We use them to convey information. The word that seems to be creating the most struggle this week is “essential.” Sure, everyone wants to feel like they’re important. They like to believe that they’re the cog without which the great machinery of state can’t run. There are jobs that can’t be deferred for a month, a week, an hour, or a minute. There are jobs that need doing right fucking now. Despite what people or bosses think, most of us don’t really make the cut. 

What I learned this week?

I’m not usually one for buying into the wisdom of movies, but I’m a life-long watcher of people.

Back in 1997, Tommy Lee Jones played a no nonsense agent keeping the world safe from the aliens among us. He said “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

Watching my fellow Americans “planning” and “preparing” for COVID-19, the zombie apocalypse, or TEOTWAWKI, basically confirms that his lines ring out across the ages as the most truthful words ever committed to film.

You’ll be glad you did…

You can’t miss the funny, funny toilet paper memes. I got it. Large numbers of people pummeling each other in the grocery store isles is good humor, I don’t deny it.

I’ll be the first to agree with you that panic buying is stupid. With that said, I think it’s stupid for reasons different than “coronavirus doesn’t cause you to die of shitting yourself.” For me, the rolling of eyes is triggered more by looking at people who don’t already have a “safety stock” of items essential to keeping a household running for a few days, a few weeks, months, a year or more depending on what your risk tolerance and budget will support.

I know some real, honest to God end of the world prepper types. I’m not even close to being in their league. I’ve got no interest in taking it to that level. They’re legitimately trying to be prepared for the collapse of civilization. It’s not out of the realm of the possible, but I’m not entirely convinced I want to hang around for that party. My personal cognitive bias tends towards the belief that over time, things will trend towards that status quo… that tomorrow will be more or less the same as yesterday. I could also be 100% wrong about that assumption.

I’m extremely comforted in knowing that if, for some reason, I needed to button up Fortress Jeff for a period of a few weeks or a month or two, I could get along without any significant impact on my standard of living. We could probably hold out a bit longer than that if I did a little rationing. It’s the level of insurance and peace of mind that I’m comfortable with maintaining over the long term.

Because I’ve done a little advance planning and bought extras a few items at a time, there’s no need for panic buying. My regular shopping trips involve simply replacing what I’ve used from week to week to maintain the baseline – usually a few canned goods, some fresh mean and vegetables, dog or cat food, and so on. Keeping a bit of extra on hand just makes good sense. When everyone else is panicking and buying up 54-packs of Charmin, you can smile, make another cup of coffee, and get on with your day.

Next time you make your weekly grocery list, add a few extra items that are good for long term storage. Buy stuff you know you’ll use anyway. Try having a little bit of a plan that extends beyond the next three to five days. At some point, because of flood, fire, snow, or pandemic, you’ll be glad you did.

The vine and fig…

It occurs to me that part of the reason weekends are so much better than weekdays is I pay virtually no attention to the news on Saturday or Sunday. Of course I catch bits in dribs and drabs from Facebook posts, whatever is trending on Twitter, or what the BBC pushes out in alerts, but I don’t make a conscious effort to seek out news during those 48 hours blocks.

Maybe some would say it makes me a bad citizen, but it makes me a more sane human being. It’s probably worth the trade off. I think I’ll continue trying to keep the shitshow of events entirely outside my own sphere of influence confined to the 5 days of the week that are already dicked up by other factors. Two days of willful disengagement out of seven days in a week don’t feel like an outrageously big ask. 

I’m left to wonder if we might not all be better off if everyone spent more time tending to the things that are within their own span of control and less tuned in to Big Events over which no one has any real control. It’s a pipe dream, of course. There are too many people too tied in who seem like they might just get off on soaking in the drama. 

As for me and mine, we’ll double down and take a page from General Washington to increasingly strive to be the kind of man who seeks mainly to  “sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Panic, correction, and why it doesn’t necessarily suck…

Anyone following the markets this week already knows that they took a beating. Global stock markets are down across the board, a fact mostly attributable to at least some level of panic about what coronavirus will mean to the overall global economy. Markets hate uncertainty and that seems to be what we’ve had from all directions for the last few days.

Because I do want to retire some day, I’m not immune to keeping one eye on the business channels throughout the day. Days when I’m tempted to panic I find it helpful to remember a couple of things: 1) In the short term stock markets always move in two directions; 2) Trading based on emotion is stupid; and 3) Over the long term, the market has never moved in any direction but up.

Sure, when you’re sitting around watching tens of thousands of dollars of savings disappear, there’s an undeniable instinct to try to save whatever you’ve got left. That’s the emotional response. The logical response, of course, is not making those losses permeant by selling into the teeth of such large moves.

I’ve got fifteen years left before I’ll need to touch anything that’s currently subject to the vagaries of the stock market. The sane, rational part of my brain knows full well that fifteen years from now the prices today are going to look like an absolute fire sale compared to where they will be then. I’ll keep plugging my cash into a well balanced mutual fund every two weeks and let history be my guide. If I were planning to retire at close of business today, of course, I’d probably be a bit more wild-eyed in my estimates, but I like to think even then I’d manage to let sanity prevail.

The day I start betting against America and against the long track record of capitalism creating real wealth over time, you might as well put a fork in me. I’ve bought the ticket and I’m taking the ride.

A lick and a promise…

We were told ebola wouldn’t come to the United States, but it did. We were told its spread was easy to prevent, but as it turns out trained medical personnel are the ones who seem to end up getting it. The whole issue is a grand demonstration of one of the major problems with politicians. In their pursuit of 50.00001% of the votes, they speak in generalities too often tailored to what the best research tells them people want to hear. Even where people want a world of black and while, I find the shades of gray are far closer to the universal constant.

So far in America we have two cases of Ebola being transmitted, It’s hardly a national epidemic. It’s frightening mostly because until a few weeks ago Ebola was far away nightmare that happened “over there.” Now it’s a real thing. It’s in at least one of our cities and apparently on our planes.

This isn’t a call to ban international travel or to mandate we all take our temperature before leaving the house for the day. It is, however, a statement of opinion that the country needs more than a press conference and repeated assurance that our standards of care and facilities can handle anything. That the two most recent victims are healthcare workers themselves gives lie to the notion that we are in any way prepared for something even a town or two over from “the worst.”

Far more people died in America today driving themselves to work than contracted Ebola, so I want to keep that in perspective. Even knowing that’s a fact, it would be nice to see more than a lick and a promise from the smart people who are in charge of keeping this shit from happening.

Attention citizens…

Attention Citizens of Maryland,

We live slightly to the south of the 39°43′ N parallel marked by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in 1767. Due to our geographic position in the northern hemisphere, we can, from time to time, expect that frozen precipitation will fall out of the sky and in accordance with the basic laws of physics, come to rest upon the ground. When it occurs in quantity, this natural phenomenon is colloquially know as a “snow storm.” Like its warmer, wetter cousin the “rain storm,” this is a perfectly natural event and tends to occur regularly during the months of December, January, February, and even March.

These storms, particularly the ones that take place late in the season tend largely to be quick hitters – lasting for a day or two at most before melting off because the ambient air temperature is well above freezing. Now I’m not a fancy, big city weather forecaster, but it strikes me that calling for wall-to-wall news coverage of a rainy day seems silly. I’m not sure why doing the same thing for snow is really any different… and yet, somehow, it is obviously considered a completely different animal.

So, my fellow citizens, here’s the thing: If you’re panicking right now, running to the supermarket to stock up on six metric tons of toilet paper, or driving across the state for a snow blower, you’re a moron. Every time there’s snow in the offing, the news gins up video of people lined up buying shovels, ice scrapers, and salt from their local big box store. In my mind, that only begs the question: Who are all these people who up until now have had no need for a shovel or a scraper? I’ve had the same “snow preparedness kit” since I moved into my first “grown up” apartment. Same shovel. Same scraper. No salt (because it’s mostly just a pain in the ass that ends up with more in the house than on the driveway). Is it really possible that so many people have never before had the need for a snow shovel or the means of clearing ice off their windshields. I’m just saying. It’s not like these are items that are consumed in use or their technology is getting better every year, so the one you bought for the last storm will work just fine for this one.

Maybe I’ve missed the point. I suppose if one shovel is good, having three or four must be better. And certainly every vehicle on the road needs half a dozen ice scrapers. I guess I’ve just never caught the bug for panic buying. You’ll eventually use all 300 rolls of Charmin, but running out and picking them up because it’s going to snow is an activity that’s simply lost on me. Still, we’re a mostly free people, so go forth and hoard if that’s what you think needs done in the face of nature’s “wrath.” I’ll be here with my feet up judging you and mocking your all too predictable asshattery.

Kind regards,


Cry Havoc…

I’m the last person on earth I ever thought would be screaming for massive government intervention in the free market, but for god’s sake the financial sector is taking a pummeling whose only precedent was before most Americans living today were born. Not to sound like a complete alarmist, but if the Congress allows liquidity to dry up any further it’s entirely possible that the entire financial engine of the country could seize. Our economy on the macro level is based on big institutions providing short term loans to one another. If that suddenly stops happening well, then God help us. I hope you’ve stocked up on lots of canned goods.