The New Normal
Once, when I was in the eighth grade, the boys in my class were discussing what to do with their bar mitzvah money. One of the boys mentioned something called a money market, which he explained was just like a savings account, and paid around ten percent interest. To my young, impressionable, pre-teen mind, that number became the benchmark against which all other rates of return were judged; for years, I considered ten percent to be a normal passive rate of return on money.
Fast forward many years. I became a financial advisor. I had already learned that ten percent money market returns were an aberration. In fact, no relatively safe investment could be counted on to deliver a return approaching that number. One would have to take on the full measure of volatility in the stock market to potentially average ten percent over time.
Fast forward to today.
Bill Gross is the co-Chief Investment Officer of PIMCO, a Newport Beach, California money management firm. PIMCO’s flagship Total Return Fund, under the stewardship of Gross, has grown to become the largest mutual fund in the world. Last summer, Gross and company described the economic circumstances and market conditions that they believe will face us over the coming years. They called it “the new normal.”
What is the new normal? Among other things it means slower economic growth, high unemployment, low interest rates, and tepid, “half-sized” – that is to say, four to five percent – stock market returns. In other words, you know the financial crisis we’ve been trying to shake? Well, get used to it. “All investors should expect considerably lower rates of return than what they grew accustomed to only a few years ago,” Gross insists.
The new normal will naturally have ramifications in the Jewish world, and in particular, the frum world. Consider:
• Yeshivos today, most of which were never—even at the height of the economic bubble—flush with funds, are under enormous financial strain. Some are being starved out of existence.
• While Information Technology is poised to be one of the growth areas of the new economy (along with Healthcare and Biotech), many frum people who are “in computers” do not currently possess the knowledge and skills for these jobs. According to a friend of mine who works for a cutting-edge IT firm, many are only trained for obsolete systems and have not kept up with the rapid changes in this field.
• For awhile it seemed like every former yeshiva guy and his brother-in-law were mortgage brokers, working very long days and weeks financing and refinancing properties for anyone and everyone who came along—making terrific commissions along the way. No longer. Fewer people are buying houses, fewer people are qualifying for mortgages, and those who are and do are finding that some banks (Chase, for example) are not taking mortgage loan applications from independent brokers.
• The frum world will always have its share of entrepreneurs, but with the severe tightening of credit, many are not getting the chance to borrow the money required to build, or even expand, businesses. Established real estate investors are finding deals, and many have cash on hand to finance them. But many younger people who are trying to get started in that business have it tough.
• One of the biggest supporters of kollelim in Eretz Yisrael saw his fortune—in the hundreds of millions—evaporate in a matter of weeks. I happened to meet him briefly by chance when he was borrowing office space from a client of mine, and watched as he sat hunched over on his cell phone trying to keep his kollelim from going under. He will survive, but many of his beneficiaries are already leaving kollel and returning to America.
And the setbacks did not begin in the last two years.
In 2003, The Wall Street Journal reported how Indians were quickly replacing Jews as the premier diamond dealers in Antwerp, Belgium. The Jews, who had at one point controlled 70% of the trade, saw their influence dwindle to just 25% in a few years. That number is even smaller today. At the time, Henri Rubens, one of the community’s leaders, declared the end of the glory days noting, “We were too complacent. Now that we realize it, it's too late.” Mr. Rubens went into real estate.
These past few decades have been remarkable for the Jewish nation, and for the Orthodox in particular. We have grown both materially and spiritually, and the two often worked hand-in-hand. Much of our largesse was committed to building a strong infrastructure of homes, shuls, yeshivos and mosdos.
But the last couple of years have been challenging; the infrastructure is showing strain and even some cracks. Many feel that we simply have to get through this rough period before going back to “normal.” But what if we’re in for a new normal? What if we need to adjust our thinking and our budgets accordingly—not just for a few years but permanently?
God will surely provide us with what we need; but our definition of “need” may have to be adjusted. Should a more moderate financial future face us, we must not allow it to slow down our spiritual growth. Our commitment to Torah and mitzvos, to educating our children and feeding our poor, to learning diligently and working honestly, must not waver.
But what we spend on our homes, our cars, our vacations, and even our simchas may need to be reigned in considerably.