Going To Extremes

By Bob Wood, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

At the end of August, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President Bush announced plans to help the U.S. recover from the worst results of the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Suddenly, both seem concerned about something that, a few weeks ago, they labeled as nothing more serious than a soft landing.

Earlier, the president had said that our economy ‘’was the envy of the rest of the developed world.’’ Isn’t it strange, so soon after that pronouncement, that he is now looking for ways to save thousands of home owners from the possibility of foreclosure?

Back in May, Bernanke said, “Importantly, we see no serious broader spillover to banks or thrift institutions from the problems in the sub-prime market; troubled lenders, for the most part, have not been institutions with federally insured deposits.”

Now with fallout from our housing bubble spreading all over the world, such as hedge funds in Europe and Australia blowing up and their shares becoming worthless, our leaders, inept as they appear to be, are now offering a renewed assessment of what’s to come.

How many times are we hearing panicked calls for interest rate relief from market promoters who, in the very recent past, were calling our economy ‘’just right, not too hot and not too cold; Goldilocks!’’? Now they are crying for an interest rate cut, or several of them, to ward off recession.

Isn’t it amazing that so many of our leading lights and economic experts seem surprised at how quickly the U.S. economy is looking nothing like what they’ve said it would be? Perhaps they have discovered that printing money at a record setting pace and lending it to anyone with a hand out might not be a sound, long-term economic policy, after all.

And now that free lunch that so many enjoyed suddenly comes with a cost, and that cost appears to be shocking many. How could all that great economic news suddenly take a back seat to worries of inflation, a cratering housing market and fears that consumers are tapped out?

Of course, many investors still tune into CNBC, looking for clues about where the U.S. economy is heading. There they find no shortage of promoters or government spokespersons who promise that the worst is almost over. And, naturally, the promoters have plenty of great stock picks to recommend, too. Given how poorly their previous calls and advice have fared, we could assume mounting reasons for skepticism. So this might be a really good time to consider other opinions about the future of the U.S. economy.

Plenty of people are willing to take either side of the debate about the health of our economy and the wisdom of buying stocks. For Bulls, too much of what the Bears have been telling us for the past couple years seemed extreme and beyond rational. But more and more, Bears’ predictions, such as harmful developments in the housing market, are proving right, much like their warnings about stocks, especially in the tech sector, a few years earlier.

For anyone predicting that the Nasdaq 100 would lose nearly 80% of its value after the market peak in early 2000, I’m sure a parade of bullish promoters on CNBC called them all sorts of bad things. I am equally sure that for any Bears predicting that the housing market would come to a standstill so soon after its high-flying days (that now mark the top in that market), the derisive retorts have been equally shrill.

So what are we now hearing from the outer edges of the Bear camp regarding the near-term outlook for our economy? I think considering this viewpoint makes sense, since what was considered extreme, almost irrational, pessimism just a few months ago doesn’t seem so far fetched now.

Let’s start with an opinion from a rather mainstream speaker, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a candidate for the presidency. In an August 28 appearance on the Alex Jones Show, he said that recent Fed attempts to rescue the mortgage and fixed income markets “were merely a stop gap measure – and that an economic collapse is all but inevitable.’’

Paul, a fan of real money, or currencies backed by tangible assets like gold, is as troubled that the U.S. prints money at an alarming rate, ignoring the consequences of flooding our economy and reserve accounts around the world with dollars. About the attempt to calm the markets with huge infusions of ‘’liquidity,’’ he says:

‘’The dollar is plunging no matter what you read and hear about and no matter how hard they work to keep the bubble going, the only way they can is creating more money…causing the dollar to go down even faster… the market seems to be reassured – there’s a contrivance to try to hold this together…but it won’t last, eventually it’s going to collapse.’’

Then we find Michael Panzner, author of Financial Armageddon, who writes, ‘’Meanwhile, newfound transparency in the wake of the unfolding financial crisis will expose a scale of fraud, corruption and self-dealing that many will find almost impossible to comprehend.

‘’Day in and day out, reports will surface about hidden losses, false accounting, inflated appraisals, sizable off-balance-sheet obligations, valuation discrepancies, unregulated offshore entities, phantom profits, insider trading, and businesses bled dry to enrich a few individuals at the expense of employees, investors, bankers and bondholders.’’

Next comes the opinion of author James Howard Kunstler, whose work can also be read at his web site, www.kunstler.com. (Be forewarned about his salty language before clicking on his site!)

‘’Terrible shocks are going to rip through the socioeconomic fabric of the USA as we turn the corner past these late summer doldrums. The fiasco of bad debt won’t be contained. The choices for those who find themselves financially underwater in the fall of ‘07 will be 1.) liquidation, 2.) bankruptcy, or 3.) destroy whatever remains of confidence in the US dollar in order to erase debt by hyperinflation.

‘’People holding power don’t like the first two, which translate into Depression (let’s make it capital “D.”) When a nation turns into a fire sale from sea to shining sea, and bankrupt citizens don’t even have enough cash-on-hand to buy things desperately cheap — well, that’s a Depression. Everybody from Fed officials to news editors have favored the softer term “recession” the past half century because it implies a mere pause in the inexorable march of progress toward economic nirvana. That’s not what we’re heading into.

‘’There will be so many assets up for sale across the USA in the months and years ahead that the very sun in the heavens will take on a K-Mart blue-light-special glow. Houses with miles of granite countertops, Maybach automobiles, cabin cruisers that burn thirty gallons of diesel an hour, and much much more.

‘’There will be so much slightly used (or barely “pre-owned”) stuff for sale that manufacturing another unit of anything (or importing it) will seem like a sick joke. Alas, there may be very few buyers, at least here among the current natives of North America. And so you get “new pricing,” and a deadly downward spiral.’’

To me, that opinion seems much closer to where we are heading than anything Bush or Bernanke have been promising for these past few months!

So the task at hand for investors is to consider which side will be proven right in the coming months. Do you believe what you hear from those like Bush and Bernanke, who say we’ll be over this speed bump in the road soon and that stocks are the way to go?

Or will you think long and hard about what Bears are saying, even those taking extreme views about where we’re headed? Try to imagine what will happen if you bet against the promoters like our government and Fed officials — and are wrong. Then, what if you bet the other way — against the extreme Bears — and are wrong?

In the first case, you’ll have sat on the sidelines for a few weeks or months while the markets head higher, but you will have preserved your capital. In the second, you may incur large losses as the worst case scenarios play out. Which side will you follow?

I’ve made my decisions and am more strongly hedged against a market fall then I have ever been. What you do is your call, but backing the bullish predictions of our government and economic leaders seems awfully risky to me, given their recent track records!

Have a great week.

Bob Wood ChFC, CLU Yusuf Kadiwala. Registered Investment Advisors, KMA, Inc., invest@muslimobserver.com.


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