It is now evident that this recession has uncovered a number of substantial flaws in our country’s financial industry. The now-exposed wounds became so complex that it took a meltdown of this size to identify them and it will take a long, sluggish recovery for them to heal. The majority of the flaws in our financial system hit individual investors the hardest. Faced with frauds, unclear loan agreements, mislabeled ratings and much more; individual investors have felt the pain and are now changing their behaviors in order to wisely navigate through this new investment jungle.
In this new, heavily-battered playing field, I have seen one group of investors disguised as two vastly different types of investors. They appear to have swapped each other spots on the risk spectrum, but the groups are really one in the same. The first type is the group that fears more losses so much that they are persuaded to stay out of the game. The second is the group of investors that has been chasing risky investments in an attempt to quickly recoup the wealth they lost in the crash. Once this type of investor wins back their losses, they pull out and leave the game; joining the first type of investor on the sidelines. These groups share a trait that makes them more similar than different: They both fear the current market.
Emotion and speculation fueled many investors before the bust and will certainly again fuel the masses during the next boom. The tendency to chase easy money is in our hardwiring and it is a difficult force to resist. Now, as is the case immediately following any recession, investors are cautious. But, this caution should do more than lead to rampant mattress stuffing. Investors should now be more willing to seek the knowledge that will allow them to make more informed decisions. The bust knocked the wind out of the majority of individual investors. Many were forced into being cautious but all can use this new caution to their benefit.
Rather than abandon investing, now is the time to be fine tuning your investment strategy by getting back to the fundamentals. Rebalance your portfolio in a way that makes sense. Hold stocks in companies with good business models. Learn to make informed decisions. Demand transparency. Get in the habit of practicing prudent due diligence or search for an expert who you trust will. Instead of letting the fear of uncertainty keep you on the sidelines, analyze your risks, lower your uncertainty and reestablish your place on the field.
Unleashing Small Business Horsepower
Small businesses have historically been the force that pulls our country out of tough economic times. Their ability to work more efficiently allows them to find innovative ways that spur job creation. But, without being able to find available capital, small businesses are restrained. A full recovery will not take hold until small businesses have access to adequate capital. The mega businesses have been propped up by the government, but small businesses heavily rely on the private-capital investments that are currently lacking.
Investing in small businesses has many advantages. From a business stance, while larger corporations have strayed from their original initiatives, small businesses usually have focused business plans that detail their near-future commitments. Yet, small businesses still tend to be more flexible, which is a huge advantage considering the amount of ideas that small businesses produce. Without flexibility and the willingness to take educated risks, their ideas would have no Petri dish in which to grow. Another advantage is that small businesses usually carry less debt than large corporations; which use debt as a primary ingredient in their financial engineering. Less debt equals fewer obligations, and this can translate into quicker returns for investors.
No matter how simple or complex a small-business investment appears, it is important to always keep in mind a few basics. First, invest in small businesses that have solid business models that you believe in. Just because a company has filed with the state to sell its securities does not mean that the investment will be a success. Businesses succeed because of vision and follow-through. Remember that “publicly-traded” does not necessarily mean “better.” Second, do not let an employee of a company convince you that an investment is not risky, that is a lie. Companies will often have securities salespeople who work on a commission. This does not mean they are automatically corrupt, it just means do not let their promises replace your due diligence. Plus, investments ALWAYS carry some level of risk. Which brings me to my last point: Always carry through with proper risk analysis. There are registered investment advisors, lawyers and other financial professionals that can help take the headache out of the process. Do not pinch pennies early on in the investment process only to be burned later by a flaw that a professional could have identified and corrected.
These are terrific times for investing in small businesses. There are countless opportunities to invest your capital in quality projects that will produce high returns. With credit not rushing like it did before the bust, business owners are actively searching for ways to acquire capital. Our recovery will continue to look and feel like a false hope until small businesses have the means to expand, create jobs and put people back to work.
Hanging on by a Home-Buyer Tax Credit
The $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit, included in the economic stimulus plan passed in February, is set to expire next month. The credit is widely touted as having given the stagnant housing industry its first sales jolt after a lengthy lull following the housing market’s implosion. Now, with legislation in recess, officials will be forced to scramble if they wish to extend the tax credit.
With a fast-approaching deadline of November 30th, many in the real-estate and construction industries have their fingers crossed that an extension will be filed and keep buyers approaching the market. Last month, some groups, such as the National Association of Home Builders, even launched newspaper advertising campaigns pleading for the extension of the credit. Several members of Congress have either drafted bills or showed support for bills in favor of extending and expanding the home-buyer tax credit. U.S. Senator John Isakson (R-Ga.) introduced a bill that would extend the program through 2010 and increase the amount to $15,000. Also, Isakson’s version would be available to all homebuyers, regardless of current ownership status or income level (the current tax credit is limited to first timers who make under $75,000 annually).
Nearly everyone agrees that the residential housing industry has been using the first-time homebuyer tax credit as a crutch; and therefore has managed to stay on its feet. However, not everyone agrees the tax credit should be extended. While many experts worry how the housing industry will fair when the tax credit expires, they also agree that a true housing-market recovery will be delayed until natural economic forces replace government support. Outside of the tax credit, the government currently provides support to home buyers in multiple ways. While attempting to thaw the credit freeze, the Fed has kept the interest rate at or around zero. This encourages lending, which includes home mortgages. Also, the current tax code already shows great support for home ownership by providing incentives such as deducting the interest on your mortgage.
A number of senators have been criticized that they support an extension because it would favor their states heavily. While this may be true for those states that have been badly bruised by the housing implosion, an extension is likely to benefit real-estate markets across the country. The general consensus is that extending the tax credit would continue to encourage buyers to explore the market. But, passing an extension depends on Congress giving attention to the matter before the November 30th deadline—for there is no shortage of higher-profile issues waiting to be addressed in September and October.
All My Best,
Thomas J. Powell