From my youth, you have taught me
Until this year, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-09 was the calamitous event that I thought would prove to be the worst moment that I’d see in my career in financial markets. However, as the coronavirus started to spread in Australia, gathering pace in late February, I realised that we were facing not only a huge health crisis, but also an economic and investment market downturn that would most likely be worse than the GFC.
In economic terms, that’s definitely the case, with unemployment already up sharply to levels not seen in decades, many businesses closed and income-producing activities across the arts, sport and churches all disappearing practically overnight. The best comparison is the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a repeat of which was threatened in the GFC, but was headed off by strong government and Reserve Bank policy action. This time around, although the Reserve Bank has cut rates and the Government has introduced several commendable income support packages, the economic hit couldn’t be averted because it was part of the public health management response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In financial market terms, the GFC comparison is valid in relation to the extent to which the share market fell in value. From its peak in late February to the trough in early March, the Australian benchmark index, the ASX200, fell by 37%. That’s not far short of the 41% fall from May 2008 to March 2009, but note the time difference. 37% in a couple of weeks compared with 41% over almost a year! The speed of this decline was brutal for investors.
It’s a calamitous time, in so many ways.
I don’t mind saying that, as it unfolded, I was highly anxious. I was anxious for our nation and the world as a whole; I was anxious about personal matters; and I was anxious about the outlook for the financial health of the Uniting Church and how I might lead Uniting Financial Services in our role within the Church.
However, in the early days of the crisis, as I contemplated possible worst case scenarios, several passages in the Psalms spoke directly to my heart and into the situation we’re dealing with. Among them, these verses from Psalm 71 were galvanising for me:
“O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.
“You who have made me see many troubles and calamities, will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.” (Psalm 71:17-18, 20)
As I reflected on that passage, I realised that God was telling me to step back from the current situation and remember what He’s been teaching me all my life.
- I learned economics during the severe ‘stagflation’ of the 1970’s, which saw soaring inflation and interest rates at the same time as double digit unemployment. We used to talk in terms of the ‘misery’ index, which combined the two economic scourges and which seemed to defy all policy attempts to improve them both.
- I first entered the workforce during the recession that brought down the Fraser Government in 1983 and created enormous uncertainty for many of my fellow graduates as well as for many of my parents’ generation as manufacturing began to ‘hollow out’.
- I left the public service to work in the private sector not long before the 1987 stock market crash, which kicked off the process that eventually resulted in Paul Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’, at the time the worst downturn since the 1930’s.
- I have managed fixed income portfolios worth many billions of dollars through the credit market meltdown that followed the ‘tech wreck’ of 2000 and the terror attacks of September 2001.
- And I was still managing fixed income portfolios during what I thought was my once in a lifetime economic disaster, the GFC.
What I observed as I recalled these episodes is that, both personally and as a nation, we got through them. Not without hurt and suffering along the way, and not always quickly, but as the Psalm said, the pattern is not just calamity and that’s it, but calamity followed by revival. While the passage is ultimately and primarily a prophecy of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, it speaks to our life experience as well.
My sense that God would revive us again grew as I watched the Australian and State Government responses to the public health threat. While I personally believe we should have closed our borders earlier and taken advantage of the fact that we’re an island to head off the virus, I agree with the overall view of most people that the response has been effective. I’ve been pleased with the swift implementation of government programs to cushion the economic impact (imperfect though they are) and measures taken by the Reserve Bank to assist financial market stability.
However, I’ve also been encouraged by the response I’ve seen across the Synod from congregations and Presbyteries. The creativity of ministry activities, the commitment to supporting one another and serving in our communities and the overall degree of working together as a united Uniting Church has been really pleasing. And the sense that we ought not waste this crisis, but use it to learn and grow, emerging with new ways of living out the gospel and worshipping God, has been at times exhilarating to watch.
This is quite possibly why God has allowed this to happen. In which case, another verse that I read will hopefully prove to be prophetic for us as well:
“You (God) brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.” (Psalm 66:11-12)
As a Church and as a nation, we are not out of the COVID19 woods yet. However, my prayer and the focus of the energies of all of us at UFS, is that we may be brought through this crisis to a place of true and lasting spiritual abundance.