Your eyes open slowly, and the light stings your retinas. Your mouth is burning with thirst, your muscles hopelessly weak. You’re in a hospital room, surrounded by an anxious medical team. “Welcome back,” says the doctor with an uneasy smile.

“What happened?” you manage, the words catching in your parched throat.

“You were in a terrible car accident: you were hit by a bus,” the doctor says gently. “You’ve been in a coma.”

“How long?”

The doctor glances nervously at her colleagues. “A long time, I’m afraid.” She pauses again. “Three years.”

It takes a few seconds for this to sink in. Three years? Your mind is filled with just one urgent question. “I gotta know, Doc. Give it to me straight. How have the markets been doing?”

Again the doctor looks nervously at the rest of the medical team, and they avert their eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s been an absolutely terrible time to invest—the worst I’ve ever experienced. Europe is on the verge of collapse. The U.S. government is a financial basket case—it even had its credit rating downgraded. Japan had a devastating tsunami that caused a nuclear disaster. Iran may go to war with the U.S. Interest rates are at all-time lows. People are saying gold will hit $10,000 an ounce. And it looks like the Leafs will miss the playoffs again this season.”

You’re floored by the news. The last thing you remember before that bus struck your car on March 8, 2009, was listening to a radio report about how “investors are potentially standing on the precipice of another Great Depression.” In fact, you were planning to sell your whole Couch Potato portfolio and move to cash as soon as you got home. But you never made it, and now it’s too late: the nightmare has come true. You must be wiped out.

Pulling yourself up in the bed, you demand that someone hand you a laptop, and you go online to read the bad news for yourself. You go to the iShares website and check the three-year annualized returns on several of your index funds, and here’s what you find:

iShares S&P/TSX Capped Composite 18.7%
iShares S&P/TSX SmallCap 29.3%
iShares S&P/TSX Capped REITs 37.0%
iShares DEX Universe Bond 7.0%
iShares DEX Real Return Bond 15.8%

That can’t be right, you think. The doctor said that the last three years have been the most difficult in recent memory. But these returns look like they’re right out of the 1990s bull market. “I guess Canada made it through unscathed,” you think. Then you tap the keyboard and visit Vanguard to see how the international markets did, expecting to see blood spill from the screen. But what’s this?

Vanguard Total Stock Market 26.7%
Vanguard Small-Cap 33.3%
Vanguard MSCI EAFE 20.1%
Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets 32.3%

“Doc, you must have been mistaken,” you say. But when you glance up from the screen you see the doctor is frantically trying to resuscitate the patient in the next bed. “Clear!” she shouts as she zaps him with the defibrillator. His body jerks violently, then slumps motionless. “Again!” she shouts, hitting the patient with another charge. But the heart monitor shows a flat line—it’s too late. “He’s gone,” the doctor intones.

“Who was that guy?” you ask.

“That was Byan Hold. I’m afraid he’s dead.”

You take one more look at your laptop screen, still trying to reconcile the numbers with the doctor’s account of the past three years and the corpse in the next bed. Finally, it comes to you in a moment of clarity—you’ve figured out the secret of investment success.

“Hey, Doc,” you say. “Do me a favour, will you? Put me back in the coma.”