Where the stock market is in wartime, there will your heart be too
War is upon the world. But videos of tanks, planes and explosions aren’t the only ones filling social media calendars.
Many are worried about stock Exchange. Brokerage accounts, 401(k) and 529 plans have been on a rollercoaster ride over the past two years – the pandemic, subsequent inflation and geopolitical unrest have been relentless.
Last week, as the opening bell rang on Wall Street and the clank of Russian tanks silenced the streets of Kiev, some on Twitter are concerned with a down market and a down country.
Discussions followed in 280 characters or less, prompting a friend of mine to ask if it’s right to feel anger when online concern centers on the stock market as lives are lost. Unsurprisingly, as with most ethical questions, I believe the answer to this question is both yes and no.
In an episode of the BBC sherlock, the sane detective triggers a smoke alarm, causing his suspect to peek into a hidden safe containing valuable information. When our world is on fire, what we look at first reveals what our hearts desire most.
Ukraine is on fire, and the duo of greed and worry resonates their cacophony around the world. These are bad reasons to focus on the market. The Christian life is one of overweight eternal treasure and underweight earthly gain, but crises like this confront us with the serpent’s creeping proposition: you can be like God and have it all. Win everything you can and panic if you don’t.
The war in Ukraine gives us an opportunity to repent, let go of our greed and worries, and embrace the spiritual practice of lamentation. It’s not enough to try to Stop our lustful aspirations for wealth or our stubborn fear of uncertainty. We need something, or rather someone, to face and embrace.
“Lamentation is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and get no response,” NT Wright wrote in an article for Time magazine. “That’s where we come in when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failures and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.”
Wright wrote these words regarding the outbreak of COVID-19, but two years later, during this season of Lent, we find ourselves asking the same question: How long, O Lord?
Repentance from our self-centered worries is the first step in lamentation and should be the believer’s first instinct in times of tribulation. But just as there are unholy reasons to worry about falling stock prices, there are also holy reasons to worry. Namely, bear markets harm the welfare of society and worsen the lot of the poor.
Immediately after the incursion, the Russian market lost 45% of its value. It only recovered about half of what was lost, and Russian central bank interest rates eclipsed the 20% mark. These are devastating consequences both for Russian citizens who do not support a tyrannical invasion and for foreigners invested in emerging markets. Although US stocks rebounded, oil rose above $115 a barrel, the highest since 2008.
Market volatility and rate fluctuations have a much wider impact than just individual investment accounts. Falling stock prices lead to higher capital costs for businesses. It is difficult to raise funds by issuing new shares or taking on new debt if your stock price is low, because the free fall in stock prices makes investors and lenders nervous. Rising capital costs cause the cost of living to rise as businesses increase the cost of goods to cover their expenses.
In short, war is expensive for society as a whole, but it is especially hard on low-income people.
Ignoring the implications of the global conflict on the cost of living, market volatility has a significant impact on working class people. The two main indicators of financial stability in the West are home ownership and savings in the retirement account. Forty-five percent of recent retirees indicated that a lack of work options, along with health issues and family care needs, contributed to their exit from the labor market.
The median retirement account value for retirees aged 65 to 74 is $164,000, which is difficult to extend to the average life expectancy of 80 years in the United States. This means that even small changes in stock prices and interest rates can have huge implications for families who depend on 401(k) distributions.
But what exactly should wailing look like when the world is in the midst of economic war?
While modern scholarship often assigns tripartite authorship of the Book of Isaiah, dissenting scholarship argues that the change in tone of chapter 40 belongs to the same Isaiah of Jerusalem. If this is true, then Isaiah 40 is not addressing the exiles, but rather those in Israel who are afraid, staring at a relentless army that is bent on stealing, killing and destroying.
What is Yahweh’s response when those he loves face barbaric warfare at the gates of their city? What is the word of the Lord for those who fear the enemy, mourn the dead, and have nowhere to turn? What is God’s response when tyrants dry up wells and savings accounts go down?
Comfort. “Comfort, console my people.” “Speak tenderly.” “Every valley will be lifted up, every mountain and every hill will be made low.” “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed” (Isaiah 40:1-5).
God’s lordship over all things includes the stock market and the world stage. This includes our concerns about how we will pay the bills, how the poor will survive, and how the persecuted will be avenged. It also includes the Lord Himself blessing the dying, soothing the suffering, and having mercy on the afflicted.
So the next time your Robinhood account is flashing red instead of green, remember that you are free, free to pause and pray for your finances, your family, and your neighbor. You are free to manage your money without greed or fear, but with a heart of stewardship and sympathy for others.
You are free to ask God, “Why?” and to mourn the loss of life and well-being in the meantime.
You are free to repent and mourn.
Will Sorrell (MDiv, MBA) oversees values-based investing at OneAscent. He and his wife are members of Grace Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama.