As a young man growing up in a middle-class home in Staunton, Virginia – a lovely small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley – I admired our most affluent townspeople.
Successful businesspeople and investors, they lived well, contributed generously to the community and were widely respected.
As I got older, I better understood why.
Many provided jobs and training to local citizens (including me). They created products and services that consumers and small businesses wanted and needed. And they reaped the financial rewards as a result.
Most were ordinary folks who worked hard, lived frugally, persevered through good times and bad, saved regularly, invested wisely, and became wealthy as a result.
I viewed them as the embodiment of the American Dream.
I didn’t just wish to be like them. I strove to emulate them. And in many ways, I did.
Yet there has been an odd shift in the zeitgeist in recent years. Admiration and appreciation of society’s wealthiest 1% have been replaced in some quarters with envy, resentment… and even anger.
We’re told that financial success creates economic inequality. (Former President Obama even described it as “the defining challenge of our time.”)
Many argue that this is deeply unfair and that “the government ought to do something about it.”
Populist politicians are only too happy to oblige.
They argue that the economy is a zero-sum game. If one person wins, someone else necessarily loses.
This is blatantly false, of course.
In a free market, every economic transaction is voluntary and therefore a win-win. If you trade your hard-earned money for someone’s product, you clearly would rather have the product than the money.
The seller, of course, would rather have the money than the product. No one was coerced. Everyone is happy.
The economy is not like a pizza, where if one person gets more everyone else gets less. Wealth is continually created, not simply “distributed.”
Were that untrue, the economy would not be getting bigger. Yet it most definitely is.
In 1980, for instance, our gross national product was $2.9 trillion. Today it is $20.1 trillion.
Household net worth has grown steadily too, topping $100 trillion in the second quarter.
Americans are getting richer. But not all of us, it’s true.
Some people don’t work. Some work but don’t save. Some save but don’t invest.
As a result, a disproportionate share of household net worth is in the hands of investors like you.
It’s not hard to see why. Warren Buffett famously compared compound returns to a snowball rolling downhill. The longer it goes on, the bigger it becomes. What starts as a tiny snowball can get as big as a haystack.
It’s exciting when this happens to a portfolio you’ve carefully tended over a period of years.
As you saved and risked your money to secure your financial future, you probably never imagined that you were somehow hurting the rest of society.
Yet pick up virtually any issue of The Washington Post or The New York Times these days. (I’m a daily subscriber to both, unfortunately.) They continually obsess over investors’ growing wealth.
In both news articles and editorials, they remind readers that “the rich” are pulling ahead while most Americans stagnate.
This week, for instance, Jeff Sommer declared in The New York Times that “rising market wealth has exacerbated economic inequality in the United States.”
Christine Emba of The Washington Post echoed this sentiment, arguing that a rising stock market “impoverishes those at the bottom.”
Got that? You getting richer makes others poorer.
It’s utter nonsense. But that doesn’t mean some Americans aren’t buying it.
As an investor, you now have a bull’s-eye on your back. In some respects, this is nothing new.
When former President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, for example, he didn’t raise income taxes. (That happened when he allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire.) Instead he imposed a new 3.8% surtax on dividends and capital gains (in addition to 19 other tax hikes).
That was Lexington or Fort Sumter, the first shots in what promises to be a full-scale war.
And investors are in the crosshairs.
In my next column, we’ll discuss exactly what’s at stake – and what you can do to protect yourself from a rising tide of envy, confiscation and redistribution.