There is a curious disconnect between the mentality of American investors and the progress we’ve made in America and around the world over the last 100 years. The massive improvements we’ve made to quality of life alone should have investors optimistic about what the future brings, but instead, they face the markets with a dour and pessimistic mood.
The markets performed poorly last year, but over any reasonable length of time, the American stock market has been an excellent place to park your savings.
The political and cultural divisions in our country are concerning, as are the speed of change in technology and finance. But to gain perspective, we need to sit back and take the long view from time to time.
Therefore, books like Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, Slouching Towards Utopia by Brad DeLong, and The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley are so important. They all do a great job of looking back at all the progress the world has made and why it is likely to accelerate in the future.
It’s important to keep in mind how far we have come. Life expectancy in England in 1800 was only 40 years and one out of every three infants died. In 1800 Americans spent 76% of their income on food, clothing and shelter - now it’s about 37%. In 1870 the poverty rate (real income of less than $2 a day) worldwide was 70%, now it is less than 10%.
Even looking at America where much talk is about the persistence of poverty, 99% of us have electricity, running water and refrigerators, 95% have television, 71% own a car and 70% have air-conditioning.
Meanwhile, Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest tycoons of the robber baron period, had none of these things. And “Commodore” Vanderbilt lived in an America that produced some of the most amazing spurts of productivity and efficiency in industry and manufacturing.
For example, between 1870 and 1900, freight charges fell 90%, the price of steel fell 75%, the price of oil fell 80% and American per capita GDP grew 66%.
And even during the Great Depression, much scientific progress was made. For DuPont, 40% of their sales in 1937 came from products that did not even exist in 1929.
For the world, the progress, while uneven, has been absolutely stunning.
During the last 50 years, life expectancy has increased by 26 years. Over the past thirty years, approximately 1.5 billion people have escaped poverty. The proportion of Vietnamese citizens living on two dollars a day has dropped 90% in the last two decades and America now trades more with Vietnam than the United Kingdom. According to the United Nations, poverty has been reduced more in the last 50 years than in the previous 500 years.
Invest Rationally, and Optimistically
What does all of this have to do with investing?
The trajectory of the American and world economy is upward and very likely to continue to surprise the pessimists and the bears. The reason is the natural inclination for growth spurred by a rising population and continuous innovation.
The same upward trend can be seen in the American stock market, as measured by a chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 1900 until today (courtesy of Macrotrends).
Sure, you will see some sharp downdrafts and some choppy periods, but the lesson here is to try to stay invested in markets for the long haul, but I suggest you take one action that will boost your returns.
Keep a decent cash level in order to stay flexible and take advantage of down markets.
Buying some quality companies at bargain prices will allow you the opportunity to beat the benchmarks and let you sleep a bit better at night.
Look forward and invest with optimism tempered by the acceptance that markets fluctuate. If you don’t stay in an optimistic frame of mind, you will surely miss opportunities.