After a volatile 2011, the stock market is off to a relatively good start in 2012 –– at least as I'm writing this –– though I'm still plenty confused about my retirement savings.
My confusion kicked into high gear in 1987 when the market plunged 508 points in one day, losing 22 percent of its value and killing my IRA.
The experts had lots of explanations after the collapse, but most failed to see it coming.
I vaguely remember the Asian financial crisis of 1997, too. It caused another Wall Street collapse that the experts didn't see coming.
Afterward, they explained that some banks in Thailand had credit problems. This caused a run on the baht, which is either the Thai currency or a really tasty dish along the lines of Gen. Tso's chicken.
Well, the bank run caused other Asian currencies to suffer, which caused the Hong Kong stock market to take a hit, which caused fear and panic at other stock markets throughout the world, which eventually caused a bunch of New York guys in suits to jump out windows.
And my IRA took another beating.
There have been lots of confusing ups and downs since then. I have been confused by the tech-stock bubble collapse of 2002, the housing bubble collapse of 2008 –– thousands of experts completely missed that one –– and the highly volatile stock market of the last three years.
If only the experts had had the same economics professor as I did back in 1984.
Purcell: "A rapidly growing economy is good, sir, because then we can all get rich!"
Professor: "Rapid growth causes inflation, you nitwit!"
Purcell: "Low unemployment is terrific because that means everyone gets to have a job!"
Professor: "Low unemployment can cause wage pressures, which cause inflation, you idiot!"
Believe it or not, I got an A-plus in the class. I answered every test question with the exact opposite of what I thought was right.
Boy, did that approach help in 2006 when housing values were soaring and everybody was jumping in. I, a lousy English major, warned everyone I knew to do the opposite! Son of a gun if a massive collapse didn't occur soon after.
For the most part, though, I and the experts remain confused.
That's because everything is linked together in ways even economic geniuses can't comprehend. Governments around the world have their tentacles all over the marketplace.
Thus, every time a Chinese communist sneezes, worldwide sell-offs follow. When Angela Merkel has a bad hair day, Mercedes stock plummets. When Benjamin Netanyahu gets a pimple, oil prices soar.
At least I think that's what happens.
That's why part of me is nostalgic for the old days, when America was largely self-contained.
We created jobs by manufacturing and buying our own cars. We drove the cars for two years, until they rusted into the ground, which caused us to buy more cars, which created more jobs!
But not anymore. American cars are built with motors made in Mexico, bumpers made in Brazil, ignition systems made in Taiwan, bodies assembled in Canada. You want an American car? Buy a Honda. They make those in Ohio.
In any event, all this interweaving of international investment means anything that happens anywhere can make or break my retirement.
It means European countries that overspend, over borrow and eventually collapse will have a painful impact on an America that continues to overspend, over borrow and will –– if we don't get our act together –– eventually collapse.
That's why I'm so confused about my retirement savings.
Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, is also a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.