I have been through a number of crises during my professional life. I was hired out of university into my first engineering position when energy prices were at record highs. All my university engineering friends found good jobs. Four years later, oil prices fell and a long energy recession went into full force. I vividly remember the layoffs and difficult economic conditions in my energy-dependent community.
After Shell hired me in 1990, I was transferred to their Deer Park Refinery. On my first day, the distillation unit caught fire and was shut down just a few days before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Shell supplied jet fuel to the US Navy and the government desperately need it. I watched the refinery perform all kinds of technical feats to supply the needed volume. It was a stressful period in the refinery.
On the morning of September 11th, I walked on the trading floor and looked up at a hanging TV screen just as an airline flew into the second tower of the World Trade Center. I then glanced at the crude oil futures screen as prices shot up. I was the Crude Oil Trading Manager and my trading team, along with senior managers, were looking at me to tell them what to do. At the end of the day, I sat looking out my office window at the exodus from downtown Houston and wondered what would happen next. It was a sobering reflection.
Last week was one of those weeks of volatility. The COVID-19 virus crashed the financial markets. Schools, sporting events, entertainment venues, conventions and public gatherings have closed for at least several weeks. We decided not to travel to Spain and canceled our hotel reservations and private tours. Yesterday, British Air canceled our flight to Madrid.
Two days ago, we drove to San Antonio with our grandchildren. It is their Spring Break and we booked a hotel on the Riverwalk. The hotel was virtually empty as were many restaurants along the river. We kept our distance from others and washed our hands more times than I have ever washed them. The overnight visit was still fun, but it had a surreal feeling. Normally, last weekend would be high tourist season. Now it is strangely quiet.
Like 9-11, Pearl Harbor, the Arab oil embargo, and other volatile events, we are now in unchartered territory. We don’t know how the virus will spread nor its scale of impact, but it will affect our society. Some people will experience declining health, perhaps even death from this new virus. Others will lose jobs, temporarily or permanently. Declining financial markets lower the ability of investors to retire or adequately live in retirement. Nonprofits suffer as contributors are less able to give. We are all interconnected and the cycle of negative news drives further negative news. It is a spin that doesn’t seem to end.
How do we respond to volatility? First, have faith in God who gave you your God-given gifts. Use your talents to make our community better. Perhaps this period was your moment to be a leader or show courage. The virus will be defeated, hopefully sooner than later. Your skills are needed to defeat it. Our country is full of so many talented workers and all need to work together for the common good. Start your day in prayer asking for wisdom, vision, and strength. Then use your God-given gifts effectively. Be the light of Christ for the world to see and follow.
Second, remain calm. English writer Rudyard Kipling (If: A Father’s Advice to His Son) says it best:
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too”
And third, look at the big picture and ask: “What will I learn from this volatile period when I reflect upon it ten years from now?” I learned from my trading days not to overreact. Always be positioned for the long term. Don’t take strategic actions until the volatility subsides and you are able to think rationally. Don’t make rash judgements. Get neutral, if at all possible, without taking big losses. Ride it out and let the world calm down and seek equilibrium. Easy to say, but if you follow the second rule to remain calm, the third rule is easier to implement.