by Gary Alexander

December 8, 2020

This year, I have let a lot of magazine subscriptions lapse. Their relentless negativism was just too much to take. In October, two venerable magazines printed five or six vitriolic negatively anti-American articles in a single issue. I suppose I should keep reading these magazines for professional research into the powerful bias of the mainstream media, but I’m only a human being. I can only take so much blarney.

One surviving magazine has been TIME, founded nearly 98 years ago by Henry Luce and Britton Hadden as America’s first weekly news magazine. Its original name was Facts, since it focused on a telegraphic delivery of information for the busy reader. Today, like so many other media outlets, it majors in long and anguished essays about what’s wrong with America. My December 14, 2020 TIME arrived Saturday. Its cover boldly stated, with no question mark attached, that 2020 was “THE WORST YEAR EVER.”

TIME Magazine Covers Image

The Red “X” over the year 2020 is only the sixth time that TIME has applied the “X,” signifying the end of a long, terrible struggle. The others were Hitler and the Japanese empire (1945), Saddam Hussein (2003), Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (2006), and Osama bin Laden (2011).

But is 2020 really the “Worst Year Ever,” equivalent of World War II, or a vendetta against terrorists?

Was Covid the worst pandemic ever? Not by a factor of about 10 to 100 (adjusted for population). Worst stock market? Nope, markets are up. Worst unemployment? No, the jobless rate peaked under 15% and quickly retreated to 6.7%. Worst natural disasters? No, consider 2005 with the rapid succession of killer hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Worst political election? No: Biden won (shouldn’t Time celebrate?) and the 2000 election wasn’t decided for 37 days. Worst urban riots? No, 1968 was far worse.

In assigning a writer for this cover article, TIME didn’t select a respected historian like David McCullough, who would have laughed at the assignment by quickly reeling off a handful of worse years in history. No, they assigned it to their staff Movie Critic, Stephanie Zacharek. To her credit, she humbly began her review by saying “There have been worse years in U.S. history, and certainly worse years in world history, but most of us alive today have seen nothing like this one.” Bingo! Those under 50 haven’t seen a worse year and haven’t read enough history to know they existed, but that didn’t stop TIME editors from trying to sell more magazines by being absolutist in their title – and adding the Red X for emphasis.

Zacharek reviewed 2020 as if it were a film: “If 2020 were a dystopian movie, you’d probably turn it off after 20 minutes.” I’m not so sure about that. There was a 2009 movie called “2012” (on cable as I write) which forecasted a world destroyed according to the Mayan calendar in December 2012. The earth’s crust began to crumble as the hero tried to save his family. Few walked out of that movie, despite its length (158 minutes). It grossed $791 million. Scary apocalyptic films sell well. Ms. Zacharek should know that.

This year is not alone. There are Internet memes for most other recent years being the “worst year ever.”

Here are some sample “worst year ever” memes from the latest bull market (mostly in Obama years!)

Worst Year Ever Images

How can you say 2020 is the worst year ever when the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached 30,000 for the first time – and it was the laggard? Through last Friday, NASDAQ was up 38.9% YTD, the Russell 2000 was up 23.4% and the S&P 500 rose 14.5%. Four years ago, on Election Day 2016 the Dow closed at 18,332, so it’s up 65% in Trump’s tenure. Who knows what could have happened without COVID-19?

The economic indicators are almost all positive – low inflation, low interest rates, high personal savings, lower travel spending, and higher productivity from working at home. GDP grew at a 33.1% annual rate in the third quarter and is on track for a 13% gain in the closing quarter. Housing is booming. Auto sales are also robust, and most consumers who are working still have plenty of savings on the sideline.

2020 May be a Bummer, but at Least Five Years Were Worse

Worst year ever? Not by a long shot. Each year from 1346 to 1351 cost about 10% of the lives in Europe, and about 50% overall within five years, mostly from the Black Plague. How about the Great Plague of 1665, which killed 100,000 Londoners in seven months, followed by the Great Fire of 1666. (I’ve just read Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year” which gives a grisly daily diary of the 1665 pandemic.)

Here are my candidates for the five worst years in the U.S. since 1918, and what happened the next year.

Let’s start with 1918, when the U.S. suffered over 100,000 World War I deaths, then 292,000 Spanish flu deaths from September to December. Overall, we lost 500,000 to 675,000 to that flu bug. Adjusted for population, that would be the equivalent of 320,000 U.S. war deaths and 935,000 flu deaths in 1918 and two million overall. Worldwide, 15-20 million were killed in World War I and 50-100 million died of the Spanish flu. Global population was 1.8 billion then. Today, the 1918 equivalent death toll would be 215 to 430 million COVID deaths (vs. 1.5 million deaths so far in 2020) and 65 to 87 million war deaths.

The next year, 1919, saw the Dow Jones Industrial Index gain 30.5%

In 1932, 25% of Americans seeking work were still unemployed, and another 25% were severely under-employed. Wages (for those who worked) were 60% below 1929 levels. Stock dividends were 57% smaller than in 1929, and total U.S. GDP had shrunk by 50%. There was a desperate march by veterans on the U.S. Capitol in July, demanding promised bonuses. Their shacks were raided and burned by the U.S. Army. When people compare today to the 1930s, they are misinformed. They are talking about two different Americas.

In the next four years, the Dow gained 66.7% (1933), +4.1% (1934), +38.5% (1935), and +24.8% (1936).

In 1940, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg swept through Holland, Belgium and moved into Paris. Only a miracle saved the British troops at Dunkirk. The Japanese Empire had subdued most of East Asia. America and a few remote British Empire outposts remained free, but the prospects for worldwide freedom were very low.

The next year, 1941, Hitler foolishly invaded Russia and Japan foolishly invaded Pearl Harbor, sealing their doom. The Dow gained 7.6% in 1942, +13.8% in 1943, +12.1% in 1944, and +26.6% in 1945.

In 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were killed, Vietnam escalated into the most battle deaths of any year in that War, beginning with January’s Tet Offensive. In late August came the Soviet invasion of Prague and riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, plus more violent riots in our cities than any year in the last century. During all this, the “Hong Kong flu” killed over 100,000 Americans.

In 1969, America put the first two men on the moon.

Finally, pick either 1982 or 2008. Each vie for “the worst recession year since the Great Depression.” In 1982, we had double-digit pain indexes across the board – inflation, unemployment, and interest rates all above 10%, including a Prime Rate of 21.5% at one time. In 2008, the numbers weren’t nearly so high, but the S&P fell 55% in a 17-month period and the global financial system was on the verge of collapse.

Next: From 1982-1999, the Dow exploded 15-fold, and the 2009-2020 bull market was the longest ever.

Even if 2020 isn’t the worst ever, or among the five worst, it will be nice to see it end and 2021 begin.

All content above represents the opinion of Gary Alexander of Navellier & Associates, Inc.

Please see important disclosures below.

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Solving the Rubik’s Cube of Stock Market Logic

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About The Author

Gary Alexander
SENIOR EDITOR

Gary Alexander has been Senior Writer at Navellier since 2009.  He edits Navellier’s weekly Marketmail and writes a weekly Growth Mail column, in which he uses market history to support the case for growth stocks.  For the previous 20 years before joining Navellier, he was Senior Executive Editor at InvestorPlace Media (formerly Phillips Publishing), where he worked with several leading investment analysts, including Louis Navellier (since 1997), helping launch Louis Navellier’s Blue Chip Growth and Global Growth newsletters.

Prior to that, Gary edited Wealth Magazine and Gold Newsletter and wrote various investment research reports for Jefferson Financial in New Orleans in the 1980s.  He began his financial newsletter career with KCI Communications in 1980, where he served as consulting editor for Personal Finance newsletter while serving as general manager of KCI’s Alexandria House book division.  Before that, he covered the economics beat for news magazines. All content of “Growth Mail” represents the opinion of Gary Alexander

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