Predicting Death and Markets
By TAN Kee Wee
(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Thursday, 4 October
2007, 7.45 am and 7.20 pm)
In February 2006, at the age of 80, Art Buchwald, the
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and humor columnist, was
told by his doctor that his kidneys were failing and that he
had just weeks to live.
Instead of continuing with his five-hours-a-day and
three-days-a-week dialysis, he decided to check into a hospice
and cheerfully wait for his death.
For those of you who have forgotten, a hospice is like
a hospital. Except that, it is for those with incurable
diseases, and who have a few months left to live. A hospice
does not try to cure patients. It only provides pain management
and emotional support to the patient and his family during his
As it turned out, Buchwald didn’t need any emotional
support. Throughout his hospice stay, he held court to an
endless stream of celebrity visitors. The meetings were always
lively and funny. All went away feeling better for
Four months later, in June 2006, instead of dying,
Buchwald’s kidneys miraculously began to work again. He was
discharged and went on to write a humorous book about his
Buchwald’s miraculous recovery was not exceptional.
Doctors’ predictions can be wrong. In recent years, some 8% of
all US hospice patients did not die within the period expected.
And about 5-20 percent of discharged hospice patients went on
to live normal lives.
Investment advisors, like doctors, have also been
caught with wrong predictions all too often. In March this
year, after global stock markets fell, many said that recovery
would be a long way off. They were wrong. Stocks hit new highs
After the August meltdown, many sang the same sad
song. As I speak, they have been proven wrong again. Most
global stock indices have hit new highs.
Of course, it is too early to dismiss the sub-prime
issue. Unlike previous US Fed rate cuts, the latest one has not
lowered interest rates enough in the money markets. And bond
yields are still high. But it does not mean that disaster is
around the corner.
When the dot com bubble burst in year 2000, there were
fears of a prolonged weakness in US domestic consumption. But
the US housing boom stepped in and proved those fears
In predicting the markets, all too often, we miss out
on an important factor which, when we look back after the
event, we realize that it was the factor which turned the
Just as it is difficult to predict the fatal course of
a disease, it might be too early to predict the positive impact
of rising stock prices, and the many benefits of a weak US
dollar, on reviving the US economy and exports.
In other words, the much-feared US economic recession,
if it comes, could be brief, with the US economy picking up
early next year. In the meantime, Asian stocks would still
enjoy the boost from Chinese investment money rushing
Despite his success as a humorous columnist, Buchwald
fought against depression and suicidal tendencies throughout
his life. His kidneys finally gave up on him and he died on 17
January 2007, about eleven months longer than
The doctor who wrongly predicted Buchwald’s early
death, must have missed an important factor. It certainly was
not making more money. It must have been his desire to make the
world a better place through his humor.
Buchwald once said, and this could come out of any
Buddhist monk from Myanmar: “It’s what you do on earth, and the
good deeds you do on earth, that are important.”