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Don't Give Up!
Getting back to even? What happened to making yourself and your family filthy rich? Could I possibly be aiming any lower? Have things really gotten so bad that you should drop all your hopes and dreams and just struggle to stay solvent?
Absolutely not. But before you can get ahead, you have to get back to even, and in difficult times that's the hardest and most important goal of all. For the last eighteen months we've watched in excruciating horror as first our homes and then our stocks have plummeted in value. Make no mistake, the stock market crashed in the second half of 2008, and this was a crash to rival anything we've seen since the Great Depression. It was the worst year for stocks since 1931. In 2008, Americans lost more than a quarter of their retirement savings in 401(k) and IRA plans, and millions more saw their retirement funds cut in half. For many of you, it's as though your money simply vanished into thin air. I'm here to show you how to get it back, one dollar at a time.
Ever since the housing bubble went bust and the stock market fell apart like a wet paper bag, we've been deluged with books that promise to help you weather the downturn and get back on your feet. But most of them either offer up the same old tired and often discredited teachings wrapped in a new, panic-filled package -- sell all stocks now and cut up those nasty credit cards -- or are full of advice that could have saved you a lot of pain if the books had been written two years ago. Wonderful timing. That's not what you'll find in this book. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but you need foresight if you're trying to rebuild your savings, and especially if you're trying to claw your way back from the ground up.
I can teach you how to protect your money in a downturn. I know how to avoid a stock market crash and even how to take advantage of one. I was entirely in cash for the crash of 1987, and in fact that's actually what put me on the map professionally in the early days of running my hedge fund and allowed me to pulverize the market in the fastest decline from peak to trough in history. I also hope that if you read and followed the advice in my earlier books Real Money, Mad Money, and Stay Mad For Life, you were able to escape the worst of the carnage. But the sad truth is that other than gold, which does well in chaotic times, and U.S. Treasurys, the safest of securities, every single asset class from stocks to corporate municipal and mortgage bonds to commodities has just been hammered. Stocks took an especially severe beating that they've only just begun to recover from. In 2008, the two most important bellwether indices that track the health of the overall market, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the much broader Standard and Poor's 500, fell by 33.8 percent and 38.49 percent, respectively. The damage has already been done, the money's been lost, and none of these new books filled with old boilerplate bromides about investing will help you get it back. Most of what you'll find on the personal finance and investing shelves is authors giving you an ounce of prevention, when what you really need is a pound of cure. But then again, they are just writers who have never managed money, not even in a bull market, let alone the vicious bear that romped through Wall Street, eating up and crushing the defenseless eggs that you thought were safe in your nest.
Anyone can see that these aren't ordinary times. This is still a moment of financial crisis, and I'm not just talking about the mess that Wall Street got itself into or the near collapse of our banking system. I mean the individual financial crises that millions of Americans are dealing with every single day: how to keep your home, how to pay for college when the college fund's gone dry, how to retire when your retirement money's been wiped out. This is the cash you were counting on, and rebuilding it is our first priority.
This book is your financial first-aid kit, an emergency room for your portfolio complete with epinephrine shots and paddles -- think "Clear!" -- to bring your pocketbook back to life. I can help you stop the bleeding and start putting your financial life back together. The new strategies, rules, and disciplines in this book will help you hang on to what you have and rebuild everything you've lost.
It won't be simple or quick or easy. I'm not making any false promises here. But the good news is that it can be done, that you can exercise some control over your financial future. Whenever we're in dire economic straits it's all too easy to fall prey to the belief that nothing can be done to make things better. Millions of Americans are losing their homes, their jobs, and their savings, not because of anything they did but because a relatively small number of people in the financial industry made bad decisions while the government was asleep at the wheel or worse, promoting the reckless driving that got us into this mess. We're all at the mercy of forces beyond our control, to some extent or another, but that's no reason to throw up your hands and stop trying. The absolute worst thing you can do is get caught like a deer in headlights and turn yourself into a pure victim of circumstance.
On the other hand, you have to recognize that this isn't business as usual. If you've lost lots of money that you need, then the stakes have never been higher, both for you and for your family. So how the heck do you deal with that kind of crisis? I can tell you the specifics, new investing strategies that incorporate everything we've learned about what works and what doesn't from the crash and its aftermath, and how you should vary your approach depending on your age. But first you need to make sure you're on an even keel.
Everyone remembers that famous quotation from Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but you hardly ever hear the rest of that sentence, the most important part, expanding on this fear: "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Now, obviously, if you've just had your retirement fund shredded or are in danger of losing your house, you have more to fear than fear itself. Fear is a great motivator but not when it paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. We've been through nasty recessions before, and believe it or not, it's possible to overcome the problems they create for you personally, and even to profit from the broader crisis and come out wealthier than ever. But to do that, you have to recognize that in extraordinarily difficult times, the stock market doesn't always operate according to ordinary rules. However, there are new rules, and rules I have pioneered to help you navigate your way through these brutal times. I can teach you how to learn from and play by these new rules and win while everyone else is trying to show you how to avoid a crash that already happened.
Why should you listen to me, and what makes this book so different from the standard fare? I'm a stock guy after all, and aren't stocks what got us into this mess in the first place? Look, I have been at this for thirty years. Unlike the usual peddlers of financial advice, I actually made myself rich by investing in the stock market and managing the money of my wealthy clients at my old hedge fund, Cramer Berkowitz & Company, including cleaning up during the devastating crash of 2000, when my fund was up 36 percent, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average took a 6.18 percent hit, the S&P 500 fell by 9.1 percent, and the NASDAQ plummeted 39.29 percent. I know how to make money in bear markets and during recessions. But beyond that, I've also been where you are right now. I know what it's like to lose a vast amount of money in a short period of time. I know how it feels to have my very future on the line. I understand the stress and the fear, but I also understand how to come back.
I still keep a memento of one of the lowest points in my life tucked into my wallet, and carry it with me wherever I go. It's a little piece of paper, a cutout from my daily portfolio run on the single worst day my hedge fund ever had, October 8, 1998, a date that, at least for me, will live in infamy. With less than three months left until the end of the year, my hedge fund, which was supposed to be managing $281 million, at the time was down $90,915,674 or 32 percent, because I'd made a series of boneheaded bets in the market. That's the kind of loss that would destroy most hedge funds, like the hundreds of funds that were brought low by 2008. It wasn't just my money that was at risk, it was my job and my entire career, too, not to mention my reputation, as virtually everyone I knew had written me off as a failure. Even The New York Times had written my premature financial obituary.
I was in the very same position that most of you are probably in right now. My investments had cratered and my future was in jeopardy. Practically everyone around me urged me to quit and head for the hills, wherever the hills might be, since I live in a Jersey suburb of New York City. So you see, I know exactly how you feel. But I'm not telling you this to show that I feel your pain. Empathy is great, but it won't make you money. You need concrete solutions and this book is filled with them.
Between October 8, that dark day when I was down almost $91 million, and the end of the year, I did what I'm going to teach you to do in this book. I got back to even, and actually finished the year with a small profit of 2 percent. I buckled down and in less than three months I made back $110 million, averaging $1.4 million in profits every single day. Not only is it possible to come back from devastating losses, but also, if you're lucky, you can even do it quickly. Now, in one respect you're in a much better position than I was in 1998: you don't have to worry about arbitrary time constraints the way a hedge fund manager does. No clients are trying to pull out money while you try to rebuild your capital, nor is anyone even looking over your shoulder, forcing you to get back to even by the end of the year. You can afford to be patient. Of course some of you have less time than others. If you're on the verge of retirement or you're about to send a child off to an expensive college that you're paying for, then you can't be as patient as someone who's in their twenties with no dependents and no big, unavoidable expenditures on the horizon. But you still have a heck of a lot longer than I did at the end of 1998, and that makes things easier.
On the other hand, I also recognize that this is not 1998. The rules of the game have changed, and it's become harder to make money in the market. Not everything that used to work for me when I was running my hedge fund still works today. Many money managers have given up and returned to other professions, too baffled or fed up with a stock market they perceive as intractable or inscrutable at best, and downright malevolent at its worst. Ideas that were common sense or conventional wisdom even just a year and a half ago can now seem downright insane. I have always believed that putting part of your income in stocks is the best way to augment your paycheck every month, that anyone can make themselves rich by investing wisely. I still think that's true, but we also have to come to terms with some harsh new realities.
First and foremost is the fact that for many people the stock market feels broken, a totally justifiable attitude. The market has taken on a level of risk that makes it a much more dangerous place to keep any money that you think you'll need to make a major purchase any time in the next few years. And beyond that, many of you probably feel betrayed by stocks. I don't blame you! Instead of being a time-tested vehicle for wealth creation, stocks have come to be viewed as the reason why people are forced to postpone retirement or take on a second job. Stocks that were once considered "blue-chip" investments, household names that lots and lots of people owned, such as General Motors, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, AIG, and Kodak, just to name a handful, have been bent, spindled, mutilated, and then mutilated some more. This is not like the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, where the stocks that lost people money could all be written off as overvalued, overhyped, speculative junk. These were considered real companies, revered time-tested institutions, part of the bedrock of the market -- and if you owned them you got killed.
So why should you believe that investing in stocks, which got us into the mess we're in, can also get us out of it? Why not just cut your losses and stick your money in a traditional savings account where you won't have to worry about it? First of all, because you'll never get back to even that way, and second, because there is a world of difference between owning stocks, which has caused so much wealth to disappear, and trying to make money in stocks, an approach that at the very least lets you sidestep some of the pain. You can get back to even if you follow the latter course. Most peddlers of financial advice, even after the wealth-shattering crash of 2008, preach the virtues of owning stocks just for the sake of owning them. They will still tell you to buy and hold, an investing shibboleth that I have been trying to smash for ages. The buy-and-hold strategy, if you can even call it one, is to pick a bunch of good-looking blue-chip companies, buy their stocks, and hang on to them till kingdom come. Selling is strictly forbidden. It's considered a sign of recklessness, of "trading," which all too many supposed experts think of as a dirty word. Same goes for the once-sacred mutual funds, with managers who adopted the same careless buy-and-hold, one-decision philosophy.
If you had practiced buy and hold over the last decade, you would have gotten exactly nowhere. The major averages have literally fallen back to levels they first hit ten years ago. That means, for example, that if you'd contributed a little bit to your 401(k) each month, the way most people do, then most of your buying was at much higher prices. The results are in and this philosophy has lost more people more money than anything save gambling, and frankly, it's hard for me to see the difference between gambling and deciding to permanently own stock in a company that could change its stripes at any moment. It's investing blind, and investing blind is no different from investing dumb.
That's why my philosophy is "buy and homework." For every stock you own, you must spend at least an hour a week checking up on the underlying company, and that's in addition to the research you ought to do before buying a new stock. I know it sounds daunting, but I'm talking about a block of time that's shorter than an NFL or an NBA game, and certainly shorter than just about every Major League Baseball contest, even without the commercials. It's less time than you'd spend seeing a movie, and I know you've never made a dime going to the movie theater, especially not with the way they rob you at the concession stand. The homework, like taking your car in for an occasional maintenance inspection, lets you know if everything is still working under the hood, or if it's time to sell and trade the stock in for a different model. Doing the homework lets you avoid holding on to the stock of a troubled company as it meanders closer to zero like AIG and GM, or sinks all the way down like Lehman Brothers or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It lets you stay on top of what's blue chip and what's been downgraded to red or white or no chip at all.
Just owning stocks because that's what you're supposed to do won't help get you back to even. But doing the homework, and owning stocks not for their own sake but for the sake of making money, definitely can. How important is the distinction between buy and hold and buy and homework? It's the difference between passively accepting whatever hand the market deals you and taking control of your own destiny.
Let me give you an example. On my television show, Mad Money, where I teach viewers how to be better investors, help make sense of the market, and tell you which stocks I would buy and sell, I made a call, based on my homework, back on September 19, 2008, recommending that people sell at least 20 percent of their portfolio because I expected the market to go lower. On that day the Dow Jones Industrial Average had closed at 11,388. Then, a little more than two weeks later, on Monday, October 6, with the Dow a thousand points lower at 10,332, I went on NBC's Today show, and in a much-derided appearance told viewers to take any money they thought they'd need over the next five years out of the stock market because I believed it had become too dangerous and too risky. That call earned me more scorn and criticism than anything else I had ever said in a career that's been full of scorn and criticism. It was also one of the best calls I've ever made, as the market went on to have its worst week in history. You avoided a 33.6 percent decline in just two months if you heeded my first clarion call, and a 26.8 percent decline with the second. A simple sidestep into cash would have kept your savings from disappearing and thus keeping you from having to work for many more years than you had probably thought would be necessary just a few weeks before these calls were made. And I helped you get back in at the lows in many stocks using the methods detailed here, methods you can use without me after I teach you their rudiments, which will allow you to rebuild your savings and make even more money. Basically, I hit the investing equivalent of a grand slam.
Now that the market's bounced back, there are those who say my philosophy of dodging the declines is flawed versus a buy-and-forget-'em method. But these uninformed critics are ignoring the colossal difference between a rally that makes up some of your losses and a rally that actually makes you money because you sidestepped the losses in the first place. In doubt? Consider the difference between someone who avoided the decline starting September 19, my first sell call, and then got in on March 9 when I said the worst of the downside was over and it was time to come back in, versus the buy-and-hold method. The buy-and-hold philosopher with $100 in the market who ignored my September 19, 2008, sell call saw his portfolio drop to $57.50 on March 9. If he then caught the 40 percent gain through the end of July 2009, he would have $81.
Now compare the person who listened on September 19 and sold his $100 and then got back in on March 9, when I said the coast was clear. By sidestepping the loss and then getting in near the bottom he would have been able to make $40 on that $100 and would finish his round-trip at $140. The person who actively managed his money and avoided the worst part of the crash by selling on September 19 has 72.8 percent more money than the buy and holder at the end of July.
How about the October 6 sell call? The buy and holder who slept through the call saw his $100 turn to $63.50 on March 9 but would be back to $88.90 at the end of July. The person who sidestepped and got back in on my suggestion would have that $140, or 57 percent more than the buy and holder. And all of this arithmetic presumes that you didn't panic out at or near the bottom when the declines became too painful to endure. How can anyone in his right mind compare the returns and say that buy and hold makes more sense?
But in print and on television I was taken to task for being reckless and irresponsible and for causing a panic with these calls. Allegedly cooler heads responded that it would be more prudent to stay the course. But nobody said I got it wrong. They didn't care. These people thought it was more important that you own stocks than that you make money in them. The whole industry is biased toward keeping you in at all times, rather than preserving your capital so it can live and appreciate another day. Your broker, your financial advisor, they want to prevent your account from going to cash at any costs. I was a broker once and I know that the instructions were "keep people in," because brokers get paid on commission, and they will never make any money if people decide to leave the party. When you sell, they will keep calling you about new opportunities so they do not lose your money to the sidelines. And the mutual fund managers are even worse. They are totally fee based. They don't earn a fee for making you money, they just take a cut of everything that's invested with them, whether they make money or lose it. Buy and hold is perfect for them because it keeps your money in their funds, generating profits for them, even if it creates losses for you. When you retreat to the sidelines and put your money in a savings account, the whole brokerage and mutual fund industries get crushed.
The sidelines, as smart and attractive as they can be, are derided as stupid by these people, but only because they're the kiss of death for any financial professional. Except, that is, for me. I don't want your assets or your commissions, I just want to give you honest advice. And as someone who has worked on commission and run a fee-based hedge fund, I know what I'm talking about. Too many people advocate buy and hold because it makes them money, not because it makes you money.
Their approach might eventually get you back to even, although I doubt it and it might not happen within your lifetime. Last I looked, that time frame surely mattered. But if it does get you back to even, it will be because of dumb luck and not anything you've done right. I have a different view: I believe that selling is the responsible thing to do when you think the stock market is headed much lower. In some ways, I wish I could have gone on Today and told them to "stay the course," if only because I didn't want to scare people, particularly when they are going off to work or getting the kids dressed for school. Not only would it have been easier for me to be bullish from a public relations standpoint, but I also genuinely want stocks to go up, not down. Unfortunately, all the signs I follow pointed to a big decline, so optimism would have been gravely misplaced. Instead I had no choice; I had to do the equivalent of shout fire in a crowded theater, because there was a massive conflagration raging behind the scenes that was about to consume everyone who stayed inside, oblivious to the disaster I knew was about to occur.
To get back to even, you need to know what to look for in a stock to figure out if it can deliver in a time when the market is busted and the economy has gone bust. I am no perma-bull, someone who always believes it's a good time to buy and to own stocks, although I do believe that you can almost always find good stocks to buy. I was literally screaming about the financial crisis starting in the summer of 2007, warning anyone who would listen that our entire financial system could come crashing down because our policymakers didn't have a clue about the true depth of the banks' problems. You can still see my "They Know Nothing" CNBC rant on YouTube, meant as a last-ditch attempt to save the banking system from its regulators. The call, obviously, was not heeded. I'm not telling you this to boast. I've made plenty of mistakes, too, mistakes I own and call attention to regularly so that we can all learn from them. My point is that I am not relying on some misguided faith in the idea that stocks will always go higher eventually to help you restore the money you've lost and make even more. I have some new investing strategies, including one that relies on dividends -- yes, dividends -- that will help you generate both income and potential upside while protecting you from the downside.
If you want to know how to make the best of a bad situation, resist the fear, keep your house, not to mention your shirt, and turn a profit, too, keep reading. I will tell you what the deadly combination of a credit crisis, stock market crash, and a global economic slowdown means for you, depending on whether you're young or old, rich or middle income. For young people, a market crash is a great long-term investing opportunity, but a big economic slowdown makes it much harder to find work. If you're older, you need to focus on rebuilding the money that you've lost in order to pay for your retirement. This is not a one-size-fits-all book. For whatever situation you're in, I'll tell you what pitfalls to avoid and how to deal with your money troubles so you can get back to even, and then get ahead. I'll tell you everything you need to know about rebuilding your retirement fund using your 401(k) plan and IRA as well as using the downturn to invest for your children.
I've also created twenty-five new rules for trading and investing based on the crash and its aftermath to help make you a better investor. Plus, because the government has such a major effect on the economy when we're in trouble, I'll go through the latest rules and regulations from the feds that can help you and your family save money. Getting back to even also means knowing how to tell the difference between a legitimate money manager and a con artist. Hard times tend to bring scammers out of the woodwork, and when we're in desperate situations we're more likely to jump at deals that are too good to be true. Bernie Madoff and his $50 billion Ponzi scheme is just the biggest of them. You don't want to be the victim of the next Madoff -- something that the regulators seem blind to, but I can sniff from miles away. Finally, I'll tell you how to spot a genuine recovery, in the market and the economy, and how to make money from it.
No matter what, don't give up. These are frightening, and occasionally infuriating, times, but with a little help you can stop being scared, stop getting mad, and start getting back to even!Copyright © 2009 by J.J. Cramer & Co.