Saturday, March 28, 2009

The 4 Things You Need

Alyce Lomax
March 25, 2009

In the last couple of weeks, I've had a lot of serious questions about the direction of the U.S. economy and actions being taken to "fix" it, and let's just say I'm concerned. I'm worried that the U.S. government might be well on its way to become increasingly insolvent, and I've argued for some rethinking of the Obama administration's economic policies for fear their current direction will wreak additional havoc on our economy.

There are some scary possibilities afoot.

Economic deterioration
Consumer spending is 70% of the U.S. gross domestic product; the fact that for years (decades, even) it's been growing at an overheated rate due to increasingly easy credit and risky debt (and of course, this also relates to the housing bubble, homes as "ATMs" and the big bust) meant our current economic correction was always destined to be a whopper.

Don't get me wrong, allowing the economy to correct on its own would have been painful -- but for all who have asked what my solution to the economic crisis would be, well, as you probably guessed, I've been in the do-nothing camp the whole time when it comes to Bailout Nation. That may sound crazy to many people, but the government's repeated interventions are exacerbating the situation. Good money is being thrown after bad in bailing out failing (or failed) enterprises like AIG (NYSE: AIG), Bank of America (NYSE: BAC), Citigroup (NYSE: C), and General Motors (NYSE: GM). In case you haven't noticed, these aren't one-time rescues -- they're beginning to look an awful lot like bottomless money pits.

That means there's less capital for actual healthy companies. Welcome to the zombie economy, folks, and that devours the healthy. Meanwhile, the government's deficit-ridden spending plans give plenty of reason to be skeptical in these precarious times.

The specter of worthless currency
Word that the Federal Reserve is firing up the printing presses heightens my anxiety. Google "Weimar Republic" to get an idea of what might be in store. And of course, Zimbabwe is a modern-day testimony to hyperinflation. (Here's a great article that explores the question as to whether we're on the road to being like deflationary Japan or hyperinflationary Zimbabwe.) Last but not least, Iceland is a timely example of an actual national-level economic collapse in the here and now.

And if you think people are scared or unhappy now, imagine how they will feel if they're paying, say, 40% more for staples like milk and bread.

I know I'm not the only one out there entertaining the notion that things could get far, far worse before they get better. Several of the bloggers in our Motley Fool CAPS community recognize the dangerous precipice we may be teetering on. (Here are two recent posts that hit on some of these themes: Gun Craze and Haven't Seen the Bottom.) While I can only hope that things won't get so dire, I am of the opinion that dismissing such concerns out of hand is a mistake. I'm sure many lost or faded civilizations over the course of history had citizens utter something along the lines of, "It could never happen here."

Those four things ...
It's not out of the realm of imagination that social unrest could occur in some urban and industrialized areas if joblessness and general outrage become bad enough, and of course, add in the possibility of hyperinflation, and things could get nasty.

I'm certainly not hoping everybody's going to go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, as panic does none of us any good; however, we could be one flippant "Let them eat cake"-type remark away from "viva la revolution!," or maybe just some run-of-the-mill semi-apocalyptic social mayhem.

With that in mind, here are four things people need to insure they have at all times:

  1. Food: Most of us know that having stores of canned goods and bottled water never hurts. That goes for the possibility of natural disasters as well as less natural events. We might all want to think about upping the ante of what we have stocked up, just in case, including necessary medicines.
  2. Shelter: Your home is your castle. Moats aren't exactly in these days, but it might be a good time to think about upgrading locks and security systems. Some might even want to consider relocating to less populated areas, or even have an RV.
  3. Transportation: Keeping your car well maintained isn't a bad idea, either, with a half a tank of gas at all times just in case. It's also a good idea to have bottled water, blankets, and non-perishable snacks in the trunk. There's always the possibility that you might have to flee and there won't be time to stop at ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) for a fill-up and a snack.
  4. Security: All you have to do is glance at the stock charts for Smith & Wesson (NYSE: SWHC) or Sturm, Ruger (NYSE: RGR) to see something's up; in fact, in the first couple months of this year, there was a 26% rise in the number of Americans who bought guns. Some gun purchasing is probably related to fears the current administration will pass more stringent gun control laws, but very recent spikes make me wonder if many people are packing heat because they believe they may have to defend themselves and their property or even hunt for food.

It's better to be safe than sorry
Believe it or not, I am still not outright rejecting the idea of investing right now; that may be testament to how I believe in bravery in the face of scary times (or it could simply mean I have some sort of cognitive dissonance disorder that might require medication). However, I do believe that there are opportunities in hard times, although the trick is identifying them.

Of course, those with the stomach for investing should be very careful, looking for survivor companies with little or no debt and strong businesses that will withstand forces that could knock a ton of weak companies out of the running.

Most important, though, your own well-being is first and foremost, which underlines why those four things above are things to consider. And as always, nobody should invest money they actually need for near-term expenses. Things are so ugly right now, I think now more than ever long-term investing can't be defined as a year or two.

I hope my dire fears don't come to pass, and then I will be able to just laugh about how imaginative and paranoid I can be; I also believe tough times can prove what we are all made of, and allow for ample opportunities to help our neighbors and invent and create new things despite adversity. On the other hand, I think it's important to contemplate worst-case scenarios and do a little contingency planning.

As the old saying goes, it's better to be safe than sorry.