Monday, March 2, 2009

Investing in the Obama Economy

Whether we voted for him or not, we must realize that Barack Obama is going to change the face of the United States and its economy. Radical changes in numerous areas of our economy are causing upheaval in the stock market and investment portfolios. To make the best investment choices, we should look at what Obama plans to do and the likely effects of his policies.

A big question on the minds of most investors is whether to ride out the crashing market or to try and salvage what remains of their portfolios. Since the financial crisis began in September 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen from a high above 13,000 to below 6,800 in trading today (3/2/09). If you are still in the market, you have probably seen a loss of approximately half the value of your portfolio.

A good strategy depends on the length of time that you have to recoup your losses. Historically, the stock market always shows a profit over time. Even in the stock market crash of 1929, when the Dow fell from 380 to 42 as the US entered the Great Depression, the stocks eventually regained their value. The down side is that this takes time. The market did not recover to its pre-1929 values until the late 1950s.

President Obama is following a set of policies that is very similar to those enacted by President Roosevelt in the 1930s and the government of Japan in the 1990s. In both cases, the increased government spending, higher taxes, and increased regulation led to a deeper recession and a slow recovery that took in excess of ten years. What we can learn from this is that, in all likelihood, we may not recover our past losses until 2030.

President Obama’s stimulus and bailouts have not stopped Wall Street’s freefall. With every new bailout and nationalization, the market falls further. Since there is no end in sight to government dabbling in the economy, there is also no bottom in sight to market losses.

If you are someone who needs your investment money in the short term, up to ten years from now, my recommendation is that you consider cutting your losses and get out of the stock market. Your current losses will become permanent, but you will preserve what you have left.

On the other hand, if you will not need your money for twenty to thirty years and are somewhat risk tolerant, you should consider staying in the market. The economy is cyclical and, in spite of everything that we can throw against it, it will recover in time. If a substantial change in government policy occurs over the next few years, the recovery might be sooner and sharper than anyone imagines.

For investors with a middle range outlook, from ten to twenty years, you should talk with your investment advisor about moving at least part of your portfolio to more conservative, less risky investments. You will lock in some losses, but you will also preserve more of your cash in the event of a long recovery.

The next question is what does constitute a safe and conservative investment in this economic climate. To answer this, we should look at what President Obama has announced as his intentions as well as what he has already done in his first six weeks in office. His banking polices, including government purchases of bank stock, have caused the value of bank stocks to crash. Auto stocks have fallen amid government bailouts and increased government control of the industry. Obama’s cap-and-trade energy tax will likely hurt traditional energy companies as well as the many businesses whose operations require energy to produce and transport their products. Health care is likely to be a target for nationalization or price controls in the near future. All of these sectors are likely to be poor investments for the next few years.

In past recessions, investors were able to invest in foreign markets when the domestic economy slowed. The current crisis, however, is worldwide. In spite of the poor performance of the US economy, it still leads that of most of other nations. Russia, Venezuela, and other oil producers have been hit hard by the collapse of oil prices. European nations have banking problems similar to ours and many are constructing their own bailout plans. Countries that depend heavily on US imports, such as China, are suffering from diminished US consumer demand.

On the other hand, a slowing economy does offer some opportunities. As more Americans make do with less, discount retailers are likely to do well. Family Dollar (FDO) is currently trading near its 52 week high, as is Dollar Tree (DLTR). McDonalds (MCD) is another company that has thus far done well in the crisis as people forgo expensive restaurants for the dollar menu.

Another likely growth sector is green energy. Obama’s energy policy will be to force a change from traditional sources of energy to new ones such as wind and solar. Carbon based energy, such as coal and oil, will be targeted by the federal government. During the campaign, Obama himself predicted that his policies would bankrupt companies that try to operate coal power plants. Similarly, companies that focus on ethanol, fuel cells, and hybrid technologies will be good bets. Even if they are not profitable on their own terms, they will be likely to receive substantial government subsidies and contracts.

To make wise investment choices, we must also consider the likelihood of either deflation or inflation. Currently, with a backlog of production, rising unemployment, and flagging consumer confidence, deflation is a threat. Increased government spending can also cause deflation since the government is competing with the private sector for money and, in effect, reducing the money supply.

Deflation occurs when people stop spending, causing the value of goods and services to decline. This may seem like a good thing when prices start to decline until you realize that the value of your property and your savings is declining as well. As goods pile up, companies cut production and lay off workers. Since consumers have less money to spend, they buy even less and more goods pile up. The cycle is a vicious one that can be hard to break. Deflation plagued both the US under the New Deal and Japan in the 1990s.

If the economy does slide into deflation, the values of almost all investments will decline. In a deflationary economy, real estate, commodities, stocks, and bonds are all poor investments. The best investment choice for a deflationary economy is to hold on to your cash.

On the other hand, inflation occurs when prices rise. Many economists believe that inflation is likely in the long term due to large government spending programs funded by debt. To service the interest on this massive debt, the government is likely to have problems generating enough revenue from the sale of government bonds. Other countries, such as China, that buy our debt have their own financial problems. Likewise, US citizens are also saddled with debt and have little left over to invest. If the government cannot raise cash through the sale of bonds, they will be left with little choice but to print more money or default on their loans.

When the government prints more money, basic economics tells us that as the money supply increases, the price (value) of the dollar will decrease. A dollar will buy less and the price of goods will increase. In our recent history, the 1970s was a time of rising inflation and, due to the high cost of capital, stagnant growth. The combination was referred to as “stagflation.” Inflation and unemployment figures were combined into a “misery index” that topped 20% by the time President Carter left office.

While deflation is likely in the short term, it is likely that we will face inflation in the long term. While an inflated dollar might make it easier to repay loans, it also erodes the value of savings and investments. People on fixed incomes are also hurt because their cash flow stream may not be indexed for the real rate of inflation.

In times of inflation, since prices tend to rise, the best investment strategy is to buy things. This strategy works from household items to real estate and commodities. For example, if you know that prices are going to rise and you know that your children will need new clothes and shoes for school next year, you would be better off to buy now before the price rises. Similarly, buying a house at the onset of an inflationary period will see an increase in the value of the house due to the inflationary decline of the dollar.

Commodities, particularly gold, are a traditional refuge during times of inflation. Gold is touted as a hedge against inflation, but because it is a high profile commodity often carries an extra expense. The price of gold is also sometimes manipulated by governments because it is often seen as a referendum on the economy.

Oil is another commodity that traditionally does well during times of inflation. Oil is currently trading at $44 per barrel, down from a high of nearly $150 per barrel in the summer of 2008. A big part of oil’s collapse was due to declining demand as the world’s economy began grinding to a halt. As the recovery eventually begins, demand will increase and the price of oil will recover. Regardless of Obama’s push for alternate energy, most of the world will run on oil for a long time to come.

One final consideration for investing during Obama’s tenure is taxes. Obama has been open about his plans to raise taxes on upper-income taxpayers and it is extremely likely that middle-income families will soon face an increased tax burden as well. Investors should take this into account. Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) offer a common means of deferring taxes. Investors should also keep in mind that there are likely to be drastic changes to the tax code. Many tax shelters and deductions are likely to be eliminated as the government tries to increase revenue.

Regardless of how the economy performs, one smart use of your money is to get yourself out of debt. With fewer monthly obligations to meet, you will have more disposable income with which to handle whatever life throws at you. Instead of paying interest to a lender, you’ll either be able to collect interest on investments or buy goods that will appreciate in value. In a time of uncertainty, preparation and savings is the smartest investment.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed financial advisor. Consult your professional financial advisor before making changes to your portfolio.


Newark NJ

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