In literature we speak of comedy versus tragedy. Comedy represents an inherent conflict that is eventually resolved and life returns to its normal rhythm. Literary comedy always ends in the vain of happily ever after. Similarly, tragedy also represents a resolution of conflict, but one that ends in a much different manner — death. Explained, “The ending of a tragedy is quite different. Here the conflict is resolved only with the death of the main character, who usually discovers just before his death that his attempts to control the conflict and make his way through it have simply compounded his difficulties and that, therefore, to a large extent the dire situation he is in is largely of his own making.¹” What is interesting and applicable from within this literary knowledge to the field of finance is the likeness between a well-written tragedy (à la Shakespeare) and the story of the modern day investor. Most of us run through our daily routine stressed and unsatisfied, placing blame on anyone else until it is too late. In some ways, it seems only proper that we treat our portfolios in the same fashion. We watch too closely, chase too willingly, or stay the course too reluctantly. We blame Wall Street, find a new expert, and listen to everything and anything heard from a cable channel with a stock ticker on the screen.
Shakespeare recognized a major flaw in human behavior — we cannot seem to get out of our own way. And our tragedy? Marginalized returns and a stressful life of blaming and gaming.
In current terms, many ran from the market during its recent dark days, and now, again want a piece of the action. Investors, who one year ago did not have the stomach for equity markets, suddenly have found their sea legs. The very same people who could not bear to lose one more dollar and exhibited anger at far too risky investments now direct their emotions at not making enough money and not having enough risk exposure. This reactionary, greedy story plays itself out time and again. The blame goes to Washington and Corporate America, and the victim is, of course, our main character — you.
There is plenty of blame to go around. We must not lose sight of who is ultimately responsible. Investors themselves are not directly accountable for deregulation or deficits, but certainly culpable for the behavior within their control. The sooner we recognize this, the more quickly we can overcome the obstacles of investing today. If not, we will someday look back and realize life’s irony too late — that our investment vision of “happily ever after” actually was within our power and our difficulties were largely of our own making. Shakespeare understood this, and accordingly may have made a very good investor in today’s markets. Will you?
Jonathan Citrin is founder and CEO of CitrinGroup, an investment advisory firm located in Birmingham, MI. He is an adjunct professor of finance in the School of Business at Wayne State University.
Founded in 2003, CitrinGroup specializes in portfolio management and advises clients on investment and wealth planning.
¹Johnston, Ian. “Dramatic Structure: Comedy and Tragedy.” Studies in Shakespeare. Southern Illinois University. Lecture.