Skip to content

Our Blog

Severe Blue

by M. Burke Koonce, III

I went to dinner last week with a friend who was on his way to New York to see one of the last performances of Bruce Springsteen’s run at the St. James Theater on Broadway. I was jealous. I haven’t been to New York City since before COVID-19, and seeing “The Boss” in such a small venue would be amazing. All week I’ve been thinking about New York and hearing Springsteen’s voice in my head. And finally, this morning, it was here. The 20th anniversary of 9/11.

One of the cruel legacies of the terrorist attacks of that day is that it was such an unusually beautiful day. I remember walking to the subway that morning and gazing up at the sky that was a color that pilots refer to as “severe blue,” associated with strong high pressure, bright sunshine, and just a touch of wind. So for the last 20 years, on the first truly beautiful day in September, I have thought at least for a few moments of something truly terrible.

I was just 30 years old, closer to my children’s ages today than my own, working as an analyst at Merrill Lynch on Vesey Street, one block from the World Trade Center. I had walked through the North Tower at about 8:15 AM, about half an hour before the first plane hit and a little more than two hours before the building collapsed. I don’t believe my own life was ever in real danger; after evacuating my building, I had made my way several blocks up the West Side Highway before the towers fell. But I watched the North Tower fall and it was only then, when I saw nothing behind it, that I realized the South Tower was already gone.

At this point, there’s not much I can say that most people don’t already know about September 11, 2001. Of course, we were paralyzed by shock and fear for days, frightened about what new terrors might emerge. Men with machine guns guarded street corners, fighter planes patrolled the skies, and the acrid odor of burnt metal hung in the air all over the city. But what’s interesting to me now is that my most vivid memories of the weeks that followed the existential threat of 9/11 are not of horror but joy. Every gathering, every dinner with friends, was a full-on reunion. Every opportunity to be together was a treasured experience. That autumn in New York, as we shuddered at every low flying plane and struggled to navigate the city without the Twin Towers, was one of the happiest periods of my life.

That’s the great irony of suffering—its gift is the gift of empathy, of shared human experience. Few of us would choose to endure something like a terrorist attack, or a global pandemic, but to experience it is to come into possession of something valuable.

As we saw in the case of 9/11 and later in the COVID-19 free-fall in March 2020, these episodes of extreme fear tend to be fleeting. Why? Because of what drives us as humans. It’s easy to forget that when we talk about markets and economies that what we are really describing are human beings. We have become so accustomed to the extraordinary resiliency and power of a market economy in a free society that it’s difficult to observe on a daily basis. However, when we are faced with true trauma, that power is on full display. The economy adjusts, markets reset, and free people around the world to rediscover joy in their lives. This is made possible by the universal motivation of millions of people around the globe to live their lives and grow their families and pursue their dreams. In the early hours, it looks like hope, and eventually, it even resembles greed. But the truth is it’s just the human spirit.

After 9/11 markets fell sharply, with the Dow Jones down 14 percent for the week after the market finally opened again on September 17. However, by early October, markets had fully recovered. Last year, markets collapsed as COVID-19 fears spread, but if you blinked you might have missed the shortest bear market in U.S. history.

Since 9/11, the S&P 500 has advanced 4.3x. The Dow is also up almost 4x. The tech-heavy NASDAQ, juiced by collapsing interest rates, is officially a 10-bagger. Similarly, since the low in March 2020, the broad market has effectively doubled. The markets have come a long way, to be sure, but naysayers still abound. The VIX Index, which measures volatility or “fear” in the financial markets, has been creeping steadily higher, fueled by factors such as the Delta variant. This fear is to be welcomed by investors. Historically, it does not last.

There has been a lot of virtual ink spilled this week about how after 9/11 nothing was ever quite the same. There may be some truth to that as it relates to certain aspects of our lives that were forcibly modified by circumstances. I certainly feel like it was a turning point in my own life. Over the next two years, I lost my father, became one, and left New York. But the events of 9/11 didn’t directly cause any of these things; it’s just what I remember about my life before I could tell it was changing.

The fact is, our lives are always changing; they were changing on September 10, 2001, and they were changing on March 22, 2020. As individuals, we are not equipped to see this. Humans, unlike markets, are spectacularly inefficient. Only in the fullness of time, in the collective wisdom of human experience, as expressed in markets and other public forums, can we trace our progress. Individual humans change, but the human experience, not so much. There are thousands of 30-year-olds working in Lower Manhattan today—certainly more now than there were in 2001. They’re just different 30-year-olds, doing what 30-year-olds did in 2001 and 1901, and 1801.

This country is an extraordinary wealth creation machine. It’s far from perfect and it’s certainly not fair. And in the future, there will be hideous terrorist attacks and terrible diseases and tragedies we cannot even contemplate. But these episodes do nothing more than increase the efforts of people who want to improve their lives and build better futures for themselves and their families, people who yearn to breathe free. The way to bet is with them. With us.

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”  — William Faulkner

Burke is the firm’s Investment Strategist. Based in the Raleigh office, Burke works closely with the firm’s Chief Investment Officer helping develop investment strategy and communicating with clients.