Saturday, December 06, 2008

Unbelieve Able

As my wife and I drove to pick up our eldest for the Thanksgiving break, I saw something I never thought I would see again: $1.95/gallon gasoline (even more incredible, that was while I was still in the borders of Connecticut, which imposes some of the highest gasoline taxes in the nation).

Indeed, what with the election, the introductions of the new Administration’s team, the bailout/rescue of the week, and the continued jitters of the world markets, the reality that gasoline costs about half what it did in July has gone almost unreported. Still, I heard a report last week that suggests the net impact of that drop in price has put about $500 billion back in American pockets—now THAT’S a “stimulus package” we can believe in!

Still, what I find interesting about that dramatic turnaround in oil prices is that it happened so rapidly that the explanations of why it ran up so quickly are still ringing in my ears. I remember all too well the pundits laying the price hikes off on the growth in the emerging industrial economies of China and India, the impact of hurricanes on production in the gulf, concern about turmoil in the Middle East, the perceived vulnerability of the shipping lanes....Others, of course, cited the fact that we hadn’t built a new refinery in more than a decade, and that we refuse to consider drilling in areas that wouldn’t seem to pose a threat to man nor beast. But what I remember most vividly was how consistently the so-called experts denied that “mere” speculation could account for these kinds of increases.

Yeah, right.

IMHO, one of the most frustrating things about the current economic crisis is that nobody seems to know what is causing it and, thus, no one can offer a credible idea of how long it will last or what can (or should) be done to hasten its end, much less what the “rest of us” are supposed to do in the “interim.”

While financial pundits are, these days, prone to trace cyclical “corrections” to the bursting of “bubbles”—housing, tech—the resulting declines are generally not that sudden, nor are they, generally speaking, wholly unanticipated. Rather, they are the result of pressures on our financial system like the geological pressures that often result in earthquakes or the eruption of volcanoes. And, like those geophysical manifestations, there are often precursors to the actual “big event,” as well as significant after effects (nor do you have to be a financial genius to see them—how many times did you look at the soaring prices of homes in your neighborhood and think “this can’t go on?”). The problems at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae that ostensibly triggered the most recent crisis were so blatantly obvious that even Congress felt compelled to hold hearings on the subject (and back in 2006, no less!).

At the outset of the current crisis, I was encouraged to see the federal government step forward to help and facilitate some—but not every—institution that appeared to be struggling. In hindsight, that may not have been as well-reasoned as one might want to believe, but at least there was the appearance of selective and intelligent, if not appropriate, involvement.

We want to believe that the so-called experts know what they’re doing. But with every passing day, it seems more and more obvious that they don’t. Little wonder, then, that the American electorate is increasingly disinclined to simply hand over a blank check. Little wonder also that some of the market’s “natural” remedies have apparently been staved off by people waiting to see how much the government would do—knowing full well that an outgoing Administration desperate for its legacy, and an incoming Administration anxious to prove itself would be more than somewhat inclined to do more than might otherwise be the case.

Retirement plan investors are consistently and, IMHO, prudently told to “stay the course” in times of turmoil; reminded that, even when change seems appropriate, even essential, to be careful about overreacting. It’s an approach that advisers, in large part, applaud and support.

Maybe it’s time the folks in Washington took a bit of THAT advice to heart.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

No comments:

Post a Comment