New Normal

By Bert Whitehead, MBA, JD

A number of clients have expressed alarm at the recent clamor of commentators who have been predicting a cataclysmic economic change worldwide. These pundits claim that we are facing an economic “New Normal” and express concern that the ‘old’ economic rules on which we rely no longer operate.

Their conclusions? Drastic changes are needed in our lives and investments to accommodate the “New Normal!”

Usually they question the viability of the U.S. dollar and offer the possibility that China, or perhaps a block of other nations, are somehow positioned to ‘take over’ the U.S. because they hold so many U.S. bonds. Another variation of this calamity centers on the recent collapse of the real estate market, the precipitous drop in the stock market, and extraordinarily low interest rates. Taken together, these developments presage the end of American prosperity for our children and ourselves.

Of course these apocalyptic pronouncements are more effective if they are tied to some political viewpoint, the more extreme the better. More often than not, far right political viewpoints proclaim that doomsday is the certain result of left-wing politics. Leftist views generally emphasize the inevitable revolution that suppression of the masses will cause.

(Note to “Investment Advice” file: Never let your politics drive your investments!)

It’s time to confront these ridiculous assertions. Yes, it is true that the investment and economic travails of the past decade have been severe and have impacted many people worldwide. Some of these changes have not occurred before during many of our lifetimes. It is enticing to point the finger of blame and shame at our financial, economic, investment and political leadership. But that is not the whole story
The power of momentum in democratic economies is easily underestimated. Although dramatic from time to time, the impact of severe financial shifts must be kept in proportion and viewed within a broader historical perspective. We need to recognize that most extreme economic shifts are self-correcting.

Even with unemployment at over 9%, over 90% of our citizens are employed. Real estate crashes, weather-related disasters, stock market crashes, low interest rates, etc. have all happened before. Indeed the damage done by seismic economic shifts during the Great Depression, the severe stagflation in the 1970’s, and the collapse of S. & L.’s in the 1980’s were all worse than we have seen today…and all of these are relatively minor when compared to the disruption of the financial markets in the 19th century. And whatever happened to the “New Economy” theory that gave rise to the ‘dot-com’ frenzy of the 1990’s?

It is folly to fret about how much of our debt is owned by the China (interestingly, Japan owns nearly as much U.S. debt as China, even though that fact is not usually noted). What can the Chinese do with our debt? They can’t dump it on the White House lawn and demand to be paid off with gold. They can’t go on the world markets and exchange dollars for Euros or Yen, or even buy gold. Any of these moves would be self-defeating because dumping huge amounts of money in any market would decrease the value of their remaining dollars. Actually, their only realistic option is to spend it in the U.S.!

There is a concern that the U.S. dollar is at a “tipping point” and will soon lose its status as the world’s reserve currency. But no other currency is in a position to take its place. The Euro’s stability is much too questionable. The Yuan doesn’t have a long enough history to be relied upon, especially when a dictatorial government can arbitrarily determine its value. Neither these nor other ‘respectable’ currencies such as the Yen, the British Pound, the Swiss Franc, etc. have enough depth to support a global economy.

Those who espouse extreme economic outcomes are invariably selling something. Usually it is their newsletter or book, or some strategy to beat the market, or gold itself. The most eminent economists in the world have never been able to predict any economic cycle with a meaningful consensus. Why should you believe the extreme voices of charlatans who use their advanced marketing techniques to dupe the fearful?

What can you do? I suggest that you sit back and follow sensible advice. The Functional Asset Allocation model, which is used by nearly 200 fee-only members of ACA (Alliance of Cambridge Advisors), focuses on the basics.

Consider this…there are only three possible economic scenarios: we can have inflation, deflation, or prosperity. It is a waste of time to try to determine which is coming next. The prudent approach is to be prepared for all three possibilities. As the ancient wisdom of the Torah exhorts: “Invest a third in land, a third in business, and a third in reserves!”

Today, that translates into a balanced portfolio of real estate, equities (i.e. stocks in companies), and cash and bond reserves. Trying to market-time and pick the next ‘hot investment’ is foolhardy. If you allow the vagaries of global economics, i.e. exogenous factors, to be the focus of your attention, you risk making decisions based on emotion rather than rational thought. In truth, it is the ‘endogenous factors’ in your life that determine your financial future.

As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” Instead of dithering about what will happen in the Mideast, or where interest rates are headed, or when will real estate level off, look at the things in your life that make a difference. Are you saving at least 10% of your gross income? Are you living within your means? Do you have enough liquidity to ride out a financial setback? Do you have a long-term fixed rate mortgage to protect you from inflation? Do you have government bonds to weather another bout of deflation.

Obsessing about the various complexities and possible outcomes in today’s global economy inevitably leads to rash and unwise leaps. Keep an eye on the issues within your reach! It is the key to a confident journey and a serene financial future.

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY.

You Are Invited to our 1st Fireside Chat of 2011 on Thursday, February 10th

Please join us at Pinnacle Financial Concepts, for our first Fireside Chat of 2011. This is a great opportunity to join us in a very relaxed atmosphere to ask questions, and get prepared for filing your tax return. On Thursday, February 10, from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. our topic will be “There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Investment Question” with a bonus (apologies to David Letterman) of “The Top 10 Things to Think About During Tax Season”. We’ll have a basic overview of investment definitions and things to know about investments to spur a discussion on the topic.

Please call 260-9800 x2 to reserve your spot at this chat. There is no charge, but we will limit the number of available seats and schedule an overflow date if needed.   Free coffee and donuts will be served and, as always, this is purely educational, no selling!!

Almost Whole

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Jane M. Young

I am continually surprised by questions from financial reporters who are still asking how my clients are faring after losing half of their retirement savings or by individual investors who are still fretting over losing half of their nest egg. If you followed our advice, as about 95% of our clients did, to stay the course and avoid selling during the drop in the market you would be close to break even now. If your risk tolerance precluded you from staying in the market, you may have realized a greater loss. This is a good reminder that we need to avoid acting on emotional reactions to the stock market. The stock market is cyclical and you can’t recover from a loss if you aren’t in the market. The stock market is counter intuitive – generally, the best time to buy is when you feel like selling and the best time to sell is when you feel like buying.

Here are some figures that will illustrate the actual change in the market over the last three or four years. The S&P 500 hit an all time high of around 1561 in October of 2007 and dropped about 56% to around 683 by March of 2009. Since March of 2009 the market increased by about 88% to 1286 on January 31, 2011. While it hasn’t reached the peak of 1561 it has returned to the 1200-1300 level where the market hovered throughout the summer of 2008 – before the significant drop in September 2008. The NASDAQ hit an all time high of around 2810 in October of 2007 and dropped about 54% to around 1293 by March of 2009. Since March of 2009 the NASDAQ has increased by about 109% to 2706 on January 31, 2011.