"The crisis," screamed the cover of Time magazine a few weeks ago: "What to Do With Your Money."
Imagine that: What to do with my money. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait; America was rushing troops to Saudi Arabia. And someone was going to tell me where to put my money.The story turned out to be written by that guru of personal finance Andrew Tobias, who explained that if you had been smart enough to take advantage of the crisis by shorting stocks, you would have made a fortune.
"In July," he wrote breezily, "you could have bought IBM October 100 puts for $25 each and sold them for $560 when the Middle East tension was at its height a month later. Twenty times your money in a month!"
Although Tobias didn't take this thought to its logical conclusion, it's not hard to do: If you can make this much when there's only "tension," imagine how rich you can get if an actual war breaks out!
The Tobias article is part of an emerging genre that has developed since Iraq invaded Kuwait. "Money management in wartime," you might call it. And you see it everywhere.
"Within hours of the first gunfire," predicted one magazine, "look for stock prices to fall 150 points or more on the Dow." I got a mailgram from Shearson Lehman Brothers. "Mideast Crisis" it began, "how will it affect your investments."
I ran a computer search on news articles that contained both the phrases "Saddam Hussein" and "stock market." There were more than 500 entries.
It is difficult to read this new genre without feeling that our priorities have gone terribly askew. To be sure, the bear market is here. But even so, it's amazing that we can obsess about money at a time like this without even a hint of remorse.
Has there ever been a time when so many people have been so unabashed about viewing the possibility of war through the prism of their own personal finances? I think not.
Why is this happening now? It's happening because of two trends. The first has to do with the markets, which have become part of the daily life of the middle class.
As recently as 20 years ago, most Americans kept their money in the bank, where it earned a federally regulated (low) rate of interest.
Today, the situation is different. The raging inflation of a decade ago, the deregulation of interest rates, the 1980's bull market, the rise of the mutual fund industry have all forced the broad middle class to become investors.
For instance, 60 million Americans have money in a mutual fund, up from 12 million only 10 years ago. The affect on the stock market of a war, should it come to that, will hurt millions of people.
That those millions will talk about this out loud speaks to a second, far more lamentable, trend: the continuing division of America into haves and have-nots. It's not much of an exaggeration to say one large segment of society owns mutual funds while the other fights wars.
It's a commonplace view by now that the Vietnam War was fought by the poor while the rich evaded the draft. But at least there was a draft then: At least people from all classes were forced to confront the consequences of war.
The growing insularity of Americans also comes into play here: Most of the mutual- fund class not only have no connection to the military themselves, they don't even know anybody who does. For them, war has entered the realm of the theoretical, except in one area: their personal finances.
It's probably true that the Dow Jones average will drop 150 points if fighting breaks out. But so what?
If it does come to that, what will matter is that Americans will be fighting and dying. Common decency alone would suggest that that's the only thing that should matter. To our everlasting shame, that is no longer the case.
(Joseph Nocera is writing a history of personal finance.)