Why Everybody is So Darn Angry

As would be expected from any serious economic downturn, Americans’ emotional reaction to the Great Recession is mostly a predictable collection of negative feelings: sorrow, fear, despair, regret, and so on. But there is another emotion in the mix that took me a little while to understand.  It is anger.  To be more specific, it is anger about losses in stocks and other financial assets.

It took a while for me to pick up on this partially because it is so alien to theAngry_baby crop Arturo J. Paniagua way I think about my investments.  Not to go too far into unpleasant details, but I have lost a lot of money in the stock market in the past year.  Really a lot.  I am sad about this.  I am regretful that I didn’t bail out when I could have.  I even feel foolish about a few particular investments I chose.  But I am not angry at anybody about it.  Why would I be?

I knew what I was getting myself into.  As readers of this blog know, my attitude to the stock market can be characterized as long term optimism tempered with a healthy dose of life-isn’t-always-fair.  I knew that the market going down by half was not likely, but always a possibility.  It had happened before.  And I knew that although being a long-term investor increased my chances of a happy ending, nothing guaranteed one.

But many people never understood that what just happened to us was even possible.  Sure, they had been told that the markets were volatile, but over the years the message had been drilled home that long-term buy-and-hold investors were safe, that if you were responsible and carefully saved your pennies and put them into the stock market for safe keeping you would get a 10% average annual return.

Then, apparently without warning, people in their fifties and sixties, who had been doing what they were supposed to do with their retirement savings for decades, lost a third or even a half of their money.  Poof.  Some of them were on the final glide path to retirement.  They had a date picked and a budget worked out that would let them live where they could play golf year-round.   And then it all just fell apart.  I met a 60ish woman the other day who bitterly wondered why she had bothered saving so much over so many years.

There are several possible emotional reactions to this sort of loss.  Denial is  popular.  Investors just stop reading their monthly statements.  Or they decide that this is just a temporary fluke and by this time next year stock prices will be back to normal. “It’s not a loss until you sell” they tell themselves.

Feelings of collective guilt are more popular than I would have thought.  There is the theory that this is God’s punishment for societal waywardness.  The secular version of this has the market collapse as the inevitable result of living beyond our means with big houses and big cars we could not afford.

Of course, collective guilt is only a stone’s throw from blaming others.  Accepting even partial responsibility for a bad thing that has happened to you is no fun. So why not modify the explanation a bit: society may have done something bad, but I didn’t participate in it.  The problem was runaway greed, but my plans to get rich on my house and investments were modest and wholesome.

Alas, if you are committed to the path of blaming others there are problems with the wayward society theory.  Most obviously, you may have trouble separating yourself from the culture of greed and/or debt that you wish to blame.  More troubling than that is the thought that if this fiasco was a result of widespread foolishness, then you should have seen it coming and avoided it.  Moreover, if your world view is that what we have experienced in the markets is unnatural and not something that was supposed to ever happen, it is hard to see it as the inevitable result of something millions of ordinary people did.

Which brings us to anger.  There are people who look at their 401k statements and conclude not that they have lost money, but that it has been stolen from them.  By evil bankers on Wall Street.  Why bankers?  because they are the people closest to the scene of the crime whose function is not understood.   Also, they’re rich.

What was most striking to me about the AIG bonus uproar was how ineffective patiently explaining the situation was to some of the most upset people.  (See my post on AIG and its comments.)  The upset people were not making a reasonable argument about fairness.  They were very angry and wanted revenge.  And we saw a glimpse of the same thing in the more awkward and  unfunny parts of the Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer affair.  At one point in the interview, when Stewart fell out of character and declared “This isn’t a game!” I half expected Cramer to put his hand on Stewart’s shoulder and supportively ask “How much did you lose, Jon?”

To former stock market professionals like Cramer and myself, this is certainly not a game, it is serious business.  But being angry at losing money is hard for us to relate to.  It’s like yelling at the little white ball on the roulette wheel.  (Except that roulette is a bad bet.  The stock market is a good one.)  The core problem is that many, perhaps most, ordinary savers and investors did not understand what they were getting into.  And in a limited sense, this is something they can justly blame on others, as those who were supposed to explain investments to Americans did a really lousy job of it.

[Photo of angry baby by Arturo J. Paniagua.  I am not saying that the angry people are babies.  I just like the picture.]


  • By ObliviousInvestor, April 10, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    This reminds me of the “On Leadership” interview a while back with John Bogle.

    The interviewer asked Bogle something to the effect of “What would you tell the angry investor who says, ‘I followed your advice exactly. And now I’m about to retire, and I’ve lost half of my money in the last 6 months.’”

    Bogle’s reply, “Well, they didn’t follow my advice. If they’d have followed my advice, they would have been roughly 50% in bonds if they’re about to retire.”

  • By funkright, April 10, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    Check my website link. Talk about getting f*cked by the man.. read the pages on the site.. It has been one hell of a lesson and one that I will not soon forget (they still will not let us more or have access to the funds)

  • By SJ, April 10, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    Isn’t it closer to yelling at Michigan State when you have money on the line? (Again, whether this was a good bet or bad bet… ::coughs:) You are betting on an agent doing well. The agent does have some instance of free will and being able to…

    Also, do you not feel this is partially caused by everyone (but me of course ;) ) living outside their means? It does sound reasonable heh… And no i didn’t live outside my means… ugrad life makes that difficult =(
    (Of course I benefited from the awesome economy w/ internships / less competitions for grad school / blah blah )

    btw, I want to see a game theory view on this. passive vs. active.

    Finally, i’m not angry seeing how I had basically 0 money in the market and it’s a “sale” now, and I guess I’m kind of more amused/intrigued. It’s interesting study in peeps psych and production/consumption. So i’m… grateful? lol…

  • By drleonesse, April 10, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    It seems to me that all anger is rooted in fear of some variety. Near-retirees are probably scared they won’t be able to retire as planned or won’t be able to live comfortably if they do. Or they won’t be able to recover to the financial level they were before all this. Truly, life is not fair.

  • By Rob Bennett, April 10, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    I think that the conventional investing advice is reckless and irresponsible and hard-hearted. So I think people have a right to be angry. I think that it’s healthy for people to feel some anger because it can be a motivator; it can cause people to seek out some new ideas.

    I worry, though, that the anger can get out of hand. It certainly is true that nothing was forced on anyone. People were free to participate in the market or not to do so. We all need to take a look at the man or woman in the mirror prior to pointing the finger at others. Unrestrained anger ends up hurting those feeling it more than any others.


  • By ryan, April 10, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    Oblivious Investor and Mr. Bogle are right. Anyone on the final glide path to retirement who lost 40% or more was not following anyone’s responsible advice and “doing everything right.”

    I’m still in my 20′s, and I’m an aggressively simple Vanguard Target Fund investor; about 30% of our income goes into the Target Year 2050 fund one way or another. So I fully support the stock market and buy and hold, etc.

    But as for the rest of society, I’m kind of wondering if the stock market is not the right answer for people who don’t understand it. And maybe I’m a pessimist, but I don’t think most people are even really capable of understanding the stock market and the associated risks that you, Frank, addressed in your post. Just listen to the people who write or call questions to the PF folks: “Should I get out of my 401k? It’s way down!” “Is it a bad time for investing in IRA’s?

    They don’t even understand the difference between a tax advantaged definitions of these accounts and the investments within them. It’s just an “IRA.”

    A good friend from high school is a financial adviser now. He regularly meets with new clients who tell him that they have “done alot of research about investments” and have “thought about it thoroughly” and want to “but a Roth-IRA.”

    He says “Great. What do you want to invest in?”

    They look puzzled, like he’s an idiot and say “What I just said, I want to buy a Roth IRA.”

    This happens all the time. And these are the people who are trying.

  • By Spliffe, April 11, 2009 @ 3:19 am

    I think the anger has something to do with people assuming, since most aren’t former financial professionals like you or Cramer, that it wasn’t really their job to look after their investments. Which is less stupid than it sounds.

    401(k)s have only been available for 20 years or so and a lot of people ‘gliding towards retirement’ probably still had some sort of emotional expectation of having what was so much more likely to be on the table at the beginning of their working lives – a defined benefit pension.

    Okay, it was silly, no doubt, to keep that emotional expectation since employers started jettisoning defined benefit pensions like they had leprosy two decades ago. But I don’t think it’s any more silly than expecting financially uneducated people to do a reasonable job of looking after complicated investment packages to fund their retirement, that as you pointed out were often badly explained to them, whilst carrying out whatever real profession they were pursuing full-time.

    The thing is, it’s not quite true to say people weren’t forced into anything. They were forced into taking complete responsibility for the funding of their old age, which, as appealing as it may be in from a libertarian perspective, most of them were spectacularly unqualified for.

    If I was twenty years older, I’d be angry too.

  • By Phil, April 11, 2009 @ 5:55 am

    “Why bankers? because they are the people closest to the scene of the crime whose function is not understood. Also, they’re rich.”
    No, not because they’re rich, but because they continued to pull down tremendous bonuses even after taking fed bail out money – at least that’s the perception we get from the bread and circuses media. I think if instead the media portrayed the losses taken by the bankers there would be less anger; more of a “we’re all in this together.” But instead there is a perception of unfairness. I took my hit, but the people that “caused” my hit got paid millions in bonuses. Now, if it were reported that these bankers pulled out all their personal wealth and put it into safer investments right before the crash, then I’d be right up front with a pitchfork and torch.

    These angry people really need to read The Black Swan or Fooled By Randomness. The chance of this crash happening sometime were 100% — it’s just no one knew when or why. In any case, I think the media, esp. the TV media whose only job is to get eyeballs to look a ads is the root cause of the pervasive anger you’ve discussed.

  • By Matt, April 11, 2009 @ 7:08 am

    These investors and financial reporters took credit when the market was good, and blamed it on God when the market was bad. That makes me mad.

  • By Jason, April 11, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    If this were an “ordinary” slump in the market, I would agree with you. But these losses are taking place within a context of corporate irresponsibility.

    Some of the financial instruments developed, like Credit Default Swaps, are playing a key role in this market. From what I understand, part of the reason these were not regulated was successful lobbying for the financial industry convincing Congress to trust the business judgment of the financial professional.

    Clearly, that trust was misplaced. I can’t speak for anyone else, but financial professionals have lost a lot of credibility. Perhaps folks aren’t listening when things are “patiently explain[ed]” because of the reckless risk taking and the economic rent-seeking behavior. And that’s excluding things like pure theft and giant pyramid schemes.

    I’m not angry over my losses, personally speaking. My non-retirement investments are fine (very conservatively invested) and because of my time horizon, I know there is plenty of time to recoup my losses in my more aggressively invested retirement. Oh, I don’t like having losses and I mentioned in a previous post of yours that I’m feeling the human response to get out of the market, but I’m not angry.

    I really do think you’re over simplifying a lot with this post.

  • By abdpbt personal finance, April 12, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    Frank, this is not a popular opinion to have, but I have to say I agree with you. It is easy to get angry with people who give stock tips like Jim Cramer, or with bankers who got rich in part off this stuff, but the bottom line is that you have to understand what you are investing in. You have to take responsibility for what you are doing with your money. It is a risk, that’s why there is a reward. I think a lot of people just buy stock and don’t know what they’re doing, as you say, and expect to cash in.

    And don’t get me started about the people close to retirement. I understand it’s depressing to lose so much value, but if you understand investment and PLAN, then you don’t have to be so devastated–my parents lost over $200,000 in the market but can still retire because *they took most of their stuff out of stocks* as they got closer to retirement! It’s like people having inflated value on their homes, and being outraged when the bubble bursts!

  • By Pete, April 13, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    The good ol’ personal responsibility argument: People shouldn’t be mad because they should have done their due diligence. I have to say that i respectfully disagree.

    First of all, the term “bankers” for most people does not just include stock brokers. It includes mortgage brokers, the ratings agencies, the people who created CDO’s, etc. And there are very many reasons to be angry that are not just sour grapes:

    1. Mortgage brokers committed fraud when approving loans. This allowed unfit buyers to bid up housing and put a much higher burden on people buying houses.

    2. Ratings agencies were in the pocket of the stock brokers and had a huge conflict of interest.

    3. The bankers manipulated risk to allow pensions and institutional investors to people’s retirement money in hugely risky investments. The people had no choice in this because they could not tell the pension managers how to invest this money.

    4. Like Jason mentioned, the bankers lobbied congress to repeal banking laws that were designed to avoid these problems so that they could line their already deep pockets.

    We’re not talking about savvy investors who took chances on the market. We’re talking about financially illiterate people who were pushed into trusting the market with their retirement funds by the government, their pension managers, and the financial industry as a whole. Asserting they should have known better is like saying patients should say no to an ill-advised surgery recommended to them by doctors. It’s not rational to expect that kind of knowledge from the general public.

    In a very narrow way you’re right. People should understand the risks. But it’s not right to completely dismiss the anger over this situation as sour grapes. there are many ways in which the financial industry and the government colluded to get us into this mess and it’s perfectly justified to be angry about that.

  • By Holly, April 14, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    Pete- Amen to that! My husband is a hard-working K-9 police officer and doesn’t know much about finance, yet when he relies on the department’s salaried benefits personnel to lead the way, he can barely get a return phone call. WHY? Because they know that the accounts are what he’s calling about, and they feel it would be easier to just ignore him than to have to explain what happened with his 457(b). They schedule one group mtg. a year to explain his various benefits, and the timing often conflicts w/his work schedule (shift work). It doesn’t matter what anyone says, the SEC was/is useless and there are plenty of suits on which to pin the blame.

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