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Are World Events Starting to Get Spooky?

There have been times in the past when it seemed as if we were in the proverbial calm before the storm. Maybe I can be accused of reaching here, but I think we’re having another one of those times. I’ve heard and seen all of the positive news just like everyone else has – the record stock market, rising tax revenues, a declining unemployment rate, the rising stock market, the spectacle of the Olympics, and of course, the rising stock market (yes, I‘m making a point). Still, I can’t help but get the feeling that world events are starting to get spooky.

Sure, on the surface everything seems fine and there is evidence of improvement. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that events have been unleashed that threaten to change the current economic dynamic into something far less pleasant.

The Double Threat – The FICA Payroll Tax increase + Obamacare

Are World Events Starting to Get Spooky?

Are World Events Starting to Get Spooky?

2013 saw the initiation of two major changes in the US that has serious potential to negatively affect the economy. We had the FICA payroll tax increase at the beginning of the year, and the rollout of Obamacare on October 1. While I realize that most people are now looking at these two events in the rearview mirror, thinking whew – glad we got past that, I don’t share that thinking.

The FICA payroll tax increase came as a result of the heralded “Fiscal Cliff”, the political/media collaboration that had us going to economic hell if we failed to increase federal revenues. The end result was a restoration of the employee portion of the FICA payroll tax, raising it from 5.65% to back to the pre-recessionary level of 7.65%.

That represents a tax increase on everyone making up to $113,000. That’s not a historical event – but one that’s slowly playing out right now. That tax increases has only been in effect for a little over a year, which means it might be another year before we begin to feel the full effects of it. I believe those effects will be entirely negative. After all, it represents a reduction in income to a population that is already struggling to earn it.

Killing the economy to “save” Social Security won’t save Social Security.

Obamacare is Part II of The Double Threat. Since that has only been in effect for a few months, it’s safe to say that we still have no clue how that will play out economically. The law is so far-reaching, and so poorly understood, that we have good reason to believe that it will be negative as well.

I’m on record as saying that there’s a lot in Obamacare that I really like. But the sweeping nature of law and the fact that it seems to have ignored economics, doesn’t bode well for the economy. We’re already starting to see negative changes in employment patterns, but my guess is that the real damage to the economy is still in front of us.

What do you think?

Riots in Thailand and Ukraine – Will Russia move in?

We never want to make too much out of events playing out in any one country, but there does seem to be a rising level of unrest in several corners of the globe. Even the mainstream media is conceding economic slowdowns in countries as significant as China, India and Brazil. And the woes being felt in the Eurozone are practically standard media fare.

The past couple of years have seen civil unrest break out in various places in the world, including Europe. The most recent trouble spots are Thailand and Ukraine. Ukraine is particularly troublesome. It sits to the southwest of Russia, and was a critical component of the former USSR.

I’m not predicting this – only bring up the possibility – but it is not inconceivable that the Russian military could roll into Ukraine on the heels of the winter Olympics.

Shortly after the fall of the USSR I met a gentleman – an engineer – who was from Russia. When I asked him his opinion of how Russia would fare post-USSR, his only comment was “Russia without the Ukraine can’t survive as a superpower.” He went on to supply various details as to why this is true, but his comment seems especially relevant right now.

I can see Russia invading Ukraine, and at least loosely reincorporating it under some quasi-unification scheme. They could move in under the pretext that the country is coming unglued, and they can’t tolerate an unstable situation developing in a neighboring country. Russia does have that history.

Will it happen? We have to hope not, but it is a possibility. And one that, should it play out, could alter the balance of power in the world, as well as the general sense that peace is the order of the day. That will have repercussions far beyond Ukraine.

Pension troubles all over the place

If current troubles aren’t disturbing enough, there’s the backdrop of under-funded pensions, particularly in the public sector. At least 10 states are facing seriously under-funded pensions, and are looking at tax increases and various schemes to fix the problem. Meanwhile, there are problems with Social Security that are hardly making the front page.

Either Social Security and public pensions have over-promised benefits, or the economy is no longer capable of delivering the type of tax revenues that are necessary to support those promises. Worse, all of this is occurring after nearly 5 years of a bull market in stocks. The brings up the question, how much worse will this get when the market goes into a downturn?

And speaking of the stock market…

Bubbles, bubbles and more bubbles

Whatever good news there is on the pension front – let’s say the 40 states that aren’t in as bad shape as the drowning 10 – it all hinges on the stock market and the returns it provides. And that’s an issue in itself.

I realize that we’re at a time when complacency over the bull market is at record levels, but even the optimist has to admit that this market has had quite a run. How much higher can the market go, particularly considering that the good news on interest rates is almost certainly behind us.

For the past few years, the stock market has been ignoring bad news, focusing instead on low interest rates and trusting in the power of the Federal Reserve to keep the liquidity coming. It has completely decoupled itself from the real economy. But sooner or later the market will react to the fundamentals, and when it does, it is likely to overreact on the downside.

That won’t just affect public pensions, but also 401(k) and IRA plans. That’s virtually the entire retirement universe for both the corporate and individual sectors. A lot of people are laboring under the delusion that double digit returns will enable them to early retire, like within the next 10 years. We’ll have to see how that works.

Right now, too much confidence is being placed in the stock market. Once it goes bust, it might break the fragile confidence that has enabled the economy to make the feeble progress that it has since 2009.

We can never forget – especially during bull markets – that the stock market is an investment venue that has been historically notorious for boom and bust cycles. Since we have been in a boom cycle for the past few years, I think we can all figure out what’s likely to happen next. If you doubt it, just recount the 2000 – 2002 and 2007 – 2009 crashes.

What’s the Average Joe or Jane to do?

Okay, these are all macroeconomic problems that none of us has any control over. What can we do on a personal level?

Since we don’t have a crystal ball, and can’t know how things will play out, the best we can do is formulate a general strategy. Here are my suggestions:

  • Get liquid – Increase your savings even if that means liquidating some investments. Millions of people lost their homes after the mortgage meltdown for lack of a few thousand dollars in cash. Don’t put yourself in that position.
  • Cut back on your stock positions – The more you have invested in stocks, the bigger hit you’ll take when the inevitable reversal comes. You can reduce that risk right now. Also, shift your stock portfolio focus to dividend growth and income investing. That will provide a cash flow and minimize price declines.
  • Cut your spending – This is a another aspect of getting liquid. By cutting your spending, you free up money for savings and debt reduction.
  • Eliminate any debt you can – If you have a lot of debt, you’ll have to think strategically. Payoff the most important loans first – particularly car loans. Not only will that eliminate a significant payment, but it also eliminates the possibility of losing your car for non-payment. You can‘t be jobless and car-less at the same time.
  • Seriously consider self-employment – During the 2007 – 2009 recession, and even the years after, it was almost impossible to get a job of any type. It may be worse in the next go round since the job market is still wobbly. The best insulation against this is self-employment. Even a side business can help, since it will enable you to take a lower paying job if you have to.

Call me a pessimist if you want, but stock market crashes and recessions happen every few years. Right now we’re about due – and the background factors suggest that the next one could be especially severe.

Do you get a sense that were on the verge of a major economic shift? If so, would do you think we should be doing to prepare for it?

( Photo by jeffgunn )


8 Responses to Are World Events Starting to Get Spooky?

  1. Kathy says:

    As I read your post, I had the TV on and was listening to a report that new guidelines are coming out for treatment of cancer. Basically they were saying that just because you have cancer, you aren’t necessarily going to get any treatment for it. This news came after I went for my annual OB/Gyne appointment where the doctor said that it has been decided by the medical community that women don’t have to have the pap test every year and never after age 65. I’ve also read that women don’t need mammograms yearly any longer. As a breast cancer survivor whose cancer was detected by a mammogram, I’m fearful that these new guidelines are all part of the Obamacare’s need to rein in costs. Remember how Obama famously stated that maybe grandma shouldn’t get surgery. Instead we’ll just give her a pain pill. I’m thinking that under this law, the choice to have any medical treatment other than abortion will be taken away from the patient and put in the hands of some government council who will look at everything with an eye on the cost. Now I’m as frugal as the next guy, maybe more so than most, but the idea of my care being determined by a guideline put out by the CDC is pretty scary to me.

    All this rant is in response to your brief mention of Obamacare. Oh, and right after the report on cancer care guidelines, Secretary Sebelius came on to declare that absolutely no one had lost their job because of Obamacare. Of course this is because the employer mandate has been postponed. But does anyone really think it will never happen?

    Yes, things are getting scary.

  2. Hi Kathy – Healthcare has become it’s own issue/crisis, and it may drive the other problems that are waiting in the wings. Personally, I think healthcare will be one of the causes of the next economic crisis, both on the expense and employment side. It’s really getting out of control.

    I mentioned in the article the bubble in stocks, but we really have several bubbles going and one of the biggest is heathcare. I’ve believed for a long time that heathcare rationing is coming, and from what you’re reporting that seems to be playing out.

    This won’t help right now, but I think that we’re going to see the development of a thriving healthcare black market, paralleling the official one. It probably will be a cash market, but the fees will be a fraction of the cost of official healthcare. The way I see it, if we can get by with health costs that are about the amount of the deductible on official care, but still have control over treatment options, this could be a viable alternative. I’ve heard tell that a cash market has already begun, since healthcare providers are also not liking what they see coming out of “reform”.

    I can’t remember another time in my life when life seemed as unpredictable and tightly stretched as it is right now.

  3. I have to agree. It’s getting pretty spooky out there. Why do you think I’ve starting writing a little bit about prepping? ;)

    Think we’ve still got a year or two before we can really tell what the end result is going to be, but the outlook doesn’t look very rosy.

  4. Hi Shane – Yeah, it seems as if the dominos are lined up and looking wobbly. My guess is that it won’t take much. We still haven’t fully recovered from the last downturn, which makes is very vulnerable when the next shock hits.

  5. jim says:

    No one has (yet) lost their job because of obamacare??????? Google, bing – whatever – how many hospitals have closed because of obamacare.

    We’re already in the midst of this cluster. People just refuse to open their eyes.

  6. Hi Jim – You won’t get any argument from me! If nothing else, it’s contributing to under-employment, as fulltime jobs are slowly being downgraded to part-time, or contract situations. I’ve written about that phenomenon in other posts.

    Actually though, hospitals have been consolidating and closing at least since 1990. How they lose money with all that’s flowed into healthcare is a complete mystery to me, but the decline has been quite staggering. But the scuttlebut is that Obamacare will accelerate the trend.

  7. Lisha says:

    I agree that the damage is still in front of us, and I’m worried about what the future holds for our country, and our world, but I really have no idea what should or could be done about it, or what I could even do about it personally. I also know that if the end is near, that it’s all going to play out just as it’s supposed to.

  8. Hi Lisha – I think we need to remain open, informed and flexible, then be prepared to act as needed. We don’t and can’t know how things will play out, but so the ability to roll with the punches, so to speak, will be really important.

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