One day in 1985 P. J. O'Rourke, an American humourist, invited a few friends to his home to take ecstasy. He wrote about the experience for Rolling Stone.
For a veteran of the Age of Aquarius, the side-effects of recreational drugs—
the frequent toilet trips; the grimy feeling on the skin; the fitful sleep later on—were familiar. It was all rather underwhelming.
"Drugs are a one-man birthday party," he explained. "You don't get any presents you didn't bring."
Those who make a living navigating financial markets might understandably be reaching for the happy pills, or at least a couple of painkillers.
For them, 2018 was a rotten year. Stockmarket losses were spread widely across the globe.
The total return—capital gains or losses plus dividends—from the S&P 500 index of leading American shares was negative for the first time in a decade.
Other markets were worse, notably China's, where the Shanghai index fell by a quarter. Safe assets eclipsed risky assets.
Treasury bonds outperformed stocks. There were worse places to be than in gold, and few better than in cash.
The source of much of the red ink is concern about the world economy.
China's economy is weaker; there are growing fears of a recession in America this year.
Yet the truly far-sighted investor can see through such ups and downs.
Indeed for people with a long-term saving goal, such as retirement or children's college fees, there is an upside to falling stock prices.
Over the business cycle, stockmarket returns are also like Mr O'Rourke's one-person birthday party.
Bad returns today imply better returns in the future and vice versa.
For those looking to build their stockholdings through recessions and recoveries, falling asset prices are good news.
That is not everyone. If your job is to manage other people's money, you have probably just had a terrible 12 months.
It is not just that fund-management fees are typically a fixed proportion of asset values and so lower prices mean lower earnings (though there is that).
There is also the sense of futility. Such professionals give a lot of thought to asset allocation—
how much should go into stocks or bonds; how much in America or elsewhere.
For all that effort, vanishingly few allocations did better than your grandmother's bank account.