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How much bad news can anyone withstand?

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times
published September 21, 2002

Last week, the week of the election and Sept. 11, was very strange. There was the forced remembrance, as if we could forget, every ramification covered in the media over and over and over as if repetition had the opposite effect of dulling the senses.

There was less focus on the present, even though an orange alert had been raised. I think it was orange, anyway; it might have been another color, but the vagueness of the alerts and the lack of mandatory or even suggested behavior also has the effect of dulling the senses to the very thing they're supposed to heighten.

And then there was thunder and lightning, and a worse portent -- Wednesday morning, prime time, the gym I go to was almost empty. TVs were on at the treadmills, and we still didn't know who'd won the Democratic race for governor. The next day war talk on Iraq started in earnest.

The whole week seemed to impart a sense of foreboding. Things weren't working the way they should work, but there was nothing really to be done about any of it. It was creepy.

Now that week is over. There was no anniversary terrorist act. The sun came out. The war looks like it'll get postponed, at least momentarily.

Yet one creepy thing hasn't gone away: the economy. This week the stock market took another down-slide or stumble or whatever word you want to use; financial writers are beginning to sound like the sports guys who every day find new words for "lose." The sizes of the losses have gotten so big so many times that they, too, are beginning to dull the senses. Down 300 points used to be a really big deal. Now it's like we don't remember what such numbers represent.

We don't even ask why anymore, either. It's this report, that figure; it's McDonald's, it's Martha Stewart, it's something the Federal Reserve did or didn't do. We used to hang on Alan Greenspan's every word (well, except the two most important ones: "irrational exuberance"). Now we don't listen to him.

But who do we listen to? While I was in France in July, the stock market's plummet was the lead headline on the front page of Le Monde. The size of the type, in a newspaper that often has no U.S. news on its front, communicated more to me than any figure. The previous day we'd left Provence, where our friend, a New York investment adviser, kept getting faxes at the idyllic 12th century fortress where we were staying -- paid for by several decades of her stock market smarts. She knows as much as anyone. Her partner had faxed the belief that the 9/ll bottom would hold.

It didn't.

Talk about creepy. This is not supposed to happen. This is America. We've had our little recession; now let's get on with making money again.

Okay, we got greedy. Some year in the 1990s I actually complained about an annual return of 13 percent. Today I'd kill for 13 percent. I'd be happy -- at least for a while -- with no more losses, but it's starting to look like that'll happen only if I stash my money under my mattress.

Every month I dread opening the statements from the financial firm that handles my account. Every month I have less money. Even though I have a Tampa investment adviser I still actually speak to and whose repositioning strategy I follow, I stand by and watch as the figure that represents my life's savings dips below this landmark, that landmark. How low can it go?

I know I'm not the only one.

I knew it even before I saw the cartoon in this week's New Yorker of a guy walking in the door carrying an urn and asking his wife, "Do we have a place for our portfolio's ashes?"

I just wish I'd heeded the prescient New Yorker cartoonist who, a few years ago during the frenzy of the hottest market in history, depicted God holding a giant thunderbolt: "I'm saving this one for the stock market."

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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