Rough markets require calm hand to steer safe passage

It's now been three months since COVID-19 took over our lives - an appropriate time to reflect on what has happened to date, and what we may see in coming months. February and March were horrible for investors, but a good bounce in April raised the median superannuation balanced fund 2.7% for the month.

For the 12 months to 30 April, this left median balanced superannuation funds down around 2.5%, but the seven-year return is still 6.8% per annum, even allowing for the carnage we have been through. These figures really do show the futility of cashing out when the market falls.

I am a glass-half-full person, but I am not optimistic about the rest of the year. I'm especially worried about September - this is when Jobkeeper will cease, the rate of payments for Jobseeker will reduce, and everybody who is on some kind of loan repayment holiday, or payroll tax holiday, will find the holiday has ended, and they are back to reality.

With international travel off the agenda for at least a year, and crowded events unlikely, there will still be a huge lack of jobs. What happens to the "one-off" government payments then?

And the longer-term prospects are even grimmer. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced last Wednesday that our Federal Budget deficit is expected to peak at around $200 billion in 2020-21. This represents around 10% of GDP - the highest since the end of World War 2.

This means that our net public debt will nearly double as a percentage of GDP over the next few years, tying us to large interest bills and repayments for decades to come.

The fundamental problem is that Australia, like the rest of the world, cannot return to normal until we are freed of the need for social distancing, and this is unlikely to happen until we find a vaccine.

This may well be a year or more away. Social distancing reduces the number of customers a business can have at any one time, making many businesses unprofitable.

Most businesses - especially restaurants and cafés - work on tight margins. At business workshops I always tell them: "The proceeds of the cups of coffee pay your rent and your staff - the proceeds from the raisin toast and the salads is where the profit lies."

Reducing the number of available customers can have a massive effect on the bottom line. And I am concerned that when September comes, many businesses will shut up shop never to open again. It worries me a lot, because small businesses have always been the backbone of this country.

So, what's the solution? Keep a cool head, and don't get overexcited as restrictions are lifted. Do everything you can to strengthen your financial position by controlling expenditure, working to a tight budget, and squirrelling away money in the bank as a buffer if possible.

Imagine that you are steering a sturdy ship through turbulent waters in a severe storm. Most days the waves will be crashing over your bow, but occasionally you will glimpse a ray of sunlight. It's challenging, but if you hold your course the odds are that you will reach your destination safely.

Unfortunately, you have no idea when that will be, but the odds are good that if you hold firm, and travel a secure course, things should be right in the end.

Noel Whittaker is the author of Making Money Made Simple and numerous other books on personal finance. noel@noelwhittaker.com.au

This story Rough markets require calm hand to steer safe passage first appeared on The Canberra Times.