Investors at all levels have been tempted to stash their savings away in what they view as safe places: federally-insured banks, gold, their mattresses. But, as retirement creeps closer, or for some of you, continues on, it is difficult to protect the value of what you have. It is even more difficult to take what you have and get it to work for you. However, difficult does not mean impossible. There are tremendous opportunities in this economic climate and these opportunities can do wonders for your future.
There is no direct financial path to retirement safety, but putting some basic concepts to work can give your investment portfolio a boost and start you in the right direction. A 60-year-old investor needs to plan for at least 30 years of financial security, so investing in the short-term is not sufficient. Planning for the long-term comes with one major obstacle: inflation. Shoving your cash into a large, everything-proof safe will ensure that the cash is always available, but inflation is resistant to safes and will still eat away at your value. Inflation adds to the puzzle of retirement planning, but keeping a stash of conservative investments can help save your portfolio from being deteriorated by inflation.
Investors do not have to fear that most conservative money-market funds or bonds issued by the federal government will lose their money. But, these are short-term protection strategies. The returns offered by these investments are likely not enough to stave off inflation. If the cost of living significantly rises, you are going to want your savings to do the same. Many investors are turning to TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) for peace of mind. TIPS can be very helpful in side stepping inflation woes, but in a low-inflation environment, your returns will be lower than many other fixed-income securities. So, do not go overboard with TIPS.
Your best weapon is diversification. Having a diverse mix of investments is a great strategy for both conservative and more risk-adverse investors. Diversification will always be your best hedge against inflation. Setting up a brief meeting with a registered investment adviser will help you to build a diverse portfolio that meets your needs. Playing it too safe now is not something you want to try and correct years after retirement. Running out of money later in life is something you can, and should, protect against now. And, again, this economic climate is filled with long-term investment opportunities.
Living Vicariously Through Predictions
Despite grim news reported for September that housing starts came in lower than expected, they rose from August rates. The tendency to be disappointed when expectations are not fulfilled adds to the bad news already being forced on us during these difficult times. When a report from the Commerce Department was released in Washington earlier this week, newspapers jumped at the chance to report that the glass was half empty. All predictions aside, housing starts still showed improvement.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “The rise in housing starts came in at 0.5 percent, climbing to a seasonally adjusted 590,000 annual rate compared to the prior month.” Housing starts improved, but major media outlets pumped out headlines such as “Bummer for Housing Starts” (Forbes) and “Housing Starts Miss Expectations” (CNNMoney.com). The media ignored projections made by 76 economists in a Bloomberg survey. Their estimates predicted that housing starts would rise somewhere between a rate of 582,000 to 630,000. But, their estimates were made at a time when the August rate was thought to be 598,000. When a correction to the August figures brought the number down to 587,000, the predictions had already been made. If the numbers the economists were using were off by 11,000, then you could assume most of them would have lowered their expectations by the same amount. This would have made the average of the 76 predictions stand at 595,000; which is very close to the recently reported 590,000 figure.
The point of all of this is that our economy still showed a humble sign of improvement. With the amount of slack still present in the housing industry, it is a small feat to break ground on any amount of new homes. Looking through rose-colored lenses will not do us any good, we need to be realistic. In that same vein, hammering out pessimistic stories when they are not realistic will only bring down the confidence upon which our markets rely. A group of surveyed economists who were making predictions based on false numbers should not have a drastic impact on our economic situation. As Charles Mackay wrote in his well-noted “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” in 1841: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Negativity spreads quickly. We have enough to go mad over without becoming disappointed when a group of “experts” do not have their predictions come true. I think the real worry here should be in our experts’ ability to make accurate predictions. Instead of “Bummer for Housing Starts” how about “Experts off Again” or “The Facts the Experts Couldn’t See Coming”?
Oh! I Didn’t See You There, Small Businesses
Small-business advocates have criticized the White House for not giving more attention to small businesses. But, on Wednesday the Obama Administration announced that it would use funds leftover from the $700 billion bailout package to aid small businesses. Discussion of the new program came in response to dissatisfaction with the initial wave of bailouts that aimed at helping large financial firms and neglected small businesses. Many policy makers have argued for months that the $700 billion stimulus was only used to balance the books of large banks.
The new plan, which is still nameless, will aim to increase lending at small, community-based banks. As was the case when individual states were dealt federal funds, the banks will be required to submit somewhat-detailed plans outlining how they plan on using the money. Since the new program will aim to get funds into the hands of small business owners, the banks’ plans will need to detail how they will play a part in this.
After a number of meetings with community banks that will be scheduled through the end of the year, officials hope to determine the amount of capital that will be distributed. The funds are only to be available to small institutions with less than $1 billion in assets.
In his announcement in Washington on Wednesday, President Obama said he was prepared to “shift the government bailout efforts from larger banks to smaller banks because small business owners still have too little access to credit.” Officials behind the new program hope that increasing credit to smaller institutions will energize job growth, which is something that has been reported on relentlessly, but has received little government attention.
Although the exact amount of the remainder of the stimulus funds is unknown, federal officials agree it is enough to support this new initiative. Having the funds already available and not having to wait on them to be raised will help get the program off the ground. The life of many small businesses could depend on the government’s ability to act quickly. Taking months to consult community bankers may delay the program and inhibit small businesses from acquiring much-needed capital. Small businesses have been ignored thus far and, through innovation and flexibility, they have been able to survive.
Thomas J. Powell
 See http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20091020-709265.html
 See http://www.reuters.com/article/governmentFilingsNews/idUSWAT01385420091021
The discussion of investment strategies in this article should not be considered an offer to buy or sell any investment. As always, consult an investment professional to assist you in meeting your investment goals.