From The Desk of Peter “Bah Humbug” Grandich
I kicked off the holiday spirit yesterday by doing something I can’t recall having done in years – missed an entire day of NFL football. Instead of yelling at a TV, my better half and I had one of the more enjoyable days in a long time. We visited the National Tree Company (Owned by a very nice family the Puleo’s, who’s dad “invented” the first artificial tree) and watched my friend Bob Marino entertain the audience. We met a super nice Santa who knew how to disco dance (Disco Pete wanted to join in).
So far be it for me to be “Scrooge-like” and spend between now and New Year’s Eve, speaking about the worst economic, social and political era in America’s history (that has clearly already begun).
Below is the final chapter of the third edition of my book (can read online for free here or order soft cover copy here). You may want to wait to New Year’s Day to read it (the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” crowd on Wall Street shall clearly say “Bah-Humbug” to my thoughts).
The blog may seem like I accepted a temporary pass to the “happy” camp through year-end, but don’t be fooled; It’s my intention to be eating plenty of bull meat in 2016 and beyond.
Confessions of a Former Wall Street Whiz Kid
Not Even Old Blue Eyes Can Save Us
‘Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord,
When men are unprepared and look not for it.”
While the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” crowd runs rampant on Wall Street and mostly unchecked by much of the financial media that make their living off of it, not even old blue eyes, Frank Sinatra, singing his famous “The Best is Yet to Come” can save them. Nor can he rescue the public who bought fully into their fairytale that more money equals more happiness, and have leveraged themselves up to their gills in debt to purchase more stuff, all while gobbling up highly priced stocks and bonds and even riskier financial products.
As I started working on this third edition, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 18,000. I can say without hesitation:
- I have never seen such complacency among private investors and so-called professionals alike;
- The spread between the fantasy on Wall Street versus the reality of Main Street has never been greater;
- Never in my career have I seen just one main factor holding the financial markets up – the FED.
When we look back, it really won’t matter whether 18,000 or 20,000 on the DJIA coincided with the true beginning of the worst economic, social, political and spiritual crisis ever to engulf this once-great nation of ours because so few will have properly prepared for it.
Albert Einstein in quoted as having said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” So I guess it’s safe to say that my 30-plus years in this business grant me a little credibility as having some level of knowledge. I would like to share some thoughts about America’s political and financial mess, our obsession with stuff, and how I see a way out.
“As a matter of honor, one man owes it to another to manifest the truth.”
– Thomas Aquinas
As I began my 32nd year in and around the financial arena and celebrated my 59th entrance onto the stage as one of the magnificent creations of the Master of the Universe, I have never been more concerned about the economic, social, political and spiritual state of the U.S.A. In my life I have done many things for which I am not looking forward to being held accountable. People sometimes ask Almighty God to be fair. Not me; I pray He’s merciful. If we all got what we fairly deserved, all would be doomed for eternity.
While it was nice to receive accolades over the years for forecasting many major tops and bottoms in several different markets, I thankfully concluded no one except Almighty God knows the future, and portraying oneself as some soothsayer is an insult to Him and mankind. So my comments here are that of just a private citizen, speaking aloud and still caring about this thing called the human race.
My first boss and the man who gave me my start as a stockbroker in April 1984 said to me on my first day in the office, “Peter, don’t do three things if you want to be successful in this business. Don’t talk about politics, religion and other men’s wives.”
While I believe he was joking about the wives, he was dead serious about politics and religion. The underlying theme of his message was, “sell products, not personal opinions.” Yet, anyone who knows me knows I have never been shy about expressing my opinion, which regularly has a negative effect on selling more products. So, I continue to provide my appraisal, this time about our country: my economic, social, political and spiritual outlook for America is not good. Since I don’t sell gold, guns, ammo, dry food, survival equipment or cabins in the mountains, I have nothing to gain by making that statement. From a business income perspective, I would do extremely better if I employed the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” outlook that is all too common throughout the financial services industry.
A common ploy within the financial services industry is to give clients a headache and then sell them an aspirin. While I will not paint a promising picture here, please note that I have no magic pill to close with. Because I never had any formal education (and am glad I didn’t, as on-the-job training has been a blessing—even if clients early in my career didn’t prosper from my lack of experience), I don’t use big words or speak like a professor (no wise cracks that I’m more like Gilligan). I’m rather simple and blunt. And I live by the Mark Twain saying, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
Too much stuff, too much debt
If I had to use one old saying to describe my overall economic assessment of the United States, it’s one that my readers have heard for some time now: “America has been robbing Peter to pay Paul, and Peter is tapped out.”
My parents’ generation asked, “Can we afford it?” There were few or no credit cards; if they couldn’t outright buy it, they did without it. Yet, today’s America asks, “Can we afford the payments?”
My parents grew up and also raised me in little apartments in New York City. What little they owned was on their backs or stored in closets within the apartments. Today, public storage facilities are everywhere and continue to be built despite typical families living in homes much bigger than the apartments their parents and grandparents were raised in. Despite all this stuff, the American family is more financially and emotionally messed up than ever. I’m often asked when we will know that we’re on the right track economically. My answer remains the same: “When we’re closing public storage facilities in droves instead of opening them.”
The typical American has no real concept of not only how much debt we have put on the backs of our future generations, but how we’re coming to the point where after paying just for the necessities of life, our cash flow may soon not only be unable to pay down the debt, but we may have problems just keeping up with the interest. One fact most in the public and many in the financial services industry don’t know about or choose not to care about is America’s unfunded liabilities. Unfunded liabilities are the difference between future government spending and future tax revenue to support that spending on Social Security (Medicare Parts A, B and D), Federal debt held by the public, plus Federal employee benefits and veteran benefits. While we know we now owe somewhere between 17 and 21 trillion dollars (that’s trillion with a “T”) in national debt, our unfunded liabilities—future debt—are estimated anywhere from another 50 to 100 trillion!
Unlike corporations which are required to account for unfunded liabilities and set aside a reserve for them, Uncle Sam has a different set of accounting rules. If the U.S. government had to abide by the same rules as the private sector, we would be bankrupt for all to see. But hey, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy…” right?
Will changing demographics equal class warfare?
Another in a series of very troubling economic factors also becomes a critical social one as well, and that is our changing demographics. While the geopolitical picture abroad, in my opinion, has never been worse for America in my lifetime, a war on American soil is also brewing—a war of the classes and age groups.
After paying $20,000 to $25,000 per year for health insurance for several years now, I, too, would like to get to Medicare and have the government start subsidizing my health care costs. But what about the 20- or 30-somethings who see their tax burden going up and up and conclude, “That old fart Grandich can do without a new heart, hip or expensive daily pill to prevent or slowdown his memory loss.” If they are paying for my healthcare, will they resent my using it? Or how about those of us who live in 55-and-over communities? How many are going to be in favor of building new schools if we can’t get what we believe to be high quality senior services?
Perhaps the worst scenario is the increasing spread between the haves and the have-nots. When does the spread become so wide the have-nots decide to take from the haves by force?
I was still publishing The Grandich Letter when Obama was elected. I wrote back then a series of articles explaining why I believed he would end up as America’s worst president. It had nothing to do with race or the color of his skin; instead, I came to that conclusion because of his total lack of work experience and based on his expressed personal beliefs. I received a fair bit of criticism for doing so, and not just from Bush haters. I’m sorry to say that the jury is back, and on just about every front he’s been found guilty as charged. The only “not guilty” vote is from the “one-percenters” who have enjoyed gigantic gains in the financial markets and are not yet ready to give him the boot (and it’s the very fact that Wall Street is so aloof to the continuing struggles of Main Street that strongly suggests when the inevitable top comes in stocks and bonds, it’s not going to be pretty for a long time afterwards).
Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
If I haven’t turned some people off by now, speaking about spiritual matters will likely do the trick. No topic has become more politically incorrect than the Judeo-Christian principles upon which this country was not only founded, but were its backbone for the first 200 or so years.
I believe at the core of what has gone wrong economically, socially and politically is the dramatic shift away from the intertwining of Judeo-Christian ways into all matters of American society, as well as the number of people who call themselves Christians yet are embracing “alternative lifestyles” our forefathers would surely have said could never come to pass. This belief in itself would cause an outcry now despite a fairly large majority who still believe it at its core. That’s exactly how screwed up political correctness has become.
Dr. Humberto Rivas, the director of pediatrics at a Texas hospital said, “With all the new ideas about what is socially acceptable and politically correct, we are becoming a society of hypocrites, opening our mouths only to express opinions that are acceptable to the current establishment. We have forgotten objectivity, truthfulness, and reality in exchange for acceptance.” Right on, Doc.
If you made it this far, I assume it’s not just curiosity that got you here but a sense of agreement on a good part of what I had to say. Naturally, the next question is, “What the heck does one do?”
With God as my witness, I believe that prayer is the first and foremost act we can undertake. I know such a comment will cause some to stop reading, but like I said at the beginning, telling only the truth and letting the chips fall where they may is my sole rule of daily operation.
This is by no means a “religious” piece, but there is a manual which has some great pointers—it’s called The Holy Bible. The Bible is not the “don’t do this and that” book some would have you believe; it is a book of wisdom and a great financial resource. As discussed in chapter 10, matters of finance and possessions are the second-most-talked-about topic in the Bible, and the topic of half of the key pieces of advice—the parables.
Like I said, this is not a “holy” commentary. One fact that makes me feel my feet are on solid ground in suggesting the book as a financial resource is that the Bible advises strongly against debt—a plague which has gripped America and caused serious economic and social hardships. Not one verse encourages its undertaking. In fact, there are many warnings about what shall befall one who embraces debt, such as Proverbs 22:7 which says, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” I’ve yet to meet anyone with large amounts of debt relative to their worth who wishes they could only get more in debt.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
As I have previously stated, the financial services industry and the advertising industry have teamed up for decades to create an illusion that more money equals more happiness. Just watch the ads. Whatever you think your goals are, their ads suggest that their services are the means to the end…without ever actually assuring you that it will occur. But the reality of the business is accentuated in one of my favorite movies, “Trading Places,” when one of the old men who owns the brokerage firm says, “No matter whether our clients make money or lose money, Duke & Duke get the commissions.”
I have said for some time that the vast majority of those who work on Wall Street are all members of a club I call the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” crowd. It is my firm belief that every single one of them could be tossed from the top of the Empire State Building and all the way down they’d smile and say, “So far, so good!”
I won’t give investment advice (because despite that fact that it’s done every day on Wall Street, one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter style advice is not doing anyone favors…everyone is different) but when I look at where we stand economically, socially, politically and spiritually both here and abroad, a few thoughts are pillars I would hope some family, friends and strangers embrace:
- As you may have heard, in the markets there are bulls, bears and pigs. The bulls and bears each have their days, but the pigs always end up getting slaughtered. For several years now, the financial markets are screaming, “Oink, oink!”
- It’s better to be a year too early then a day too late! It’s been a spectacular run in stocks and bonds but whether there’s more left in the tank or not, risk versus reward seems heavily tilted now towards risk.
- The ultimate crime in investing is not being wrong, it’s staying (For several years, I could have been the poster boy for this.)
- The mental anguish from poor financial decisions lasts longer and hurts deeper than the financial consequences. Remembering Duke & Duke, the chances your financial advisor will be sharing your anguish are slim to none.
Like it or not, how we handle our finances will have a significant impact on our lives and those about whom we care. Having proven that I am an authority on the don’ts as well as the do’s, I truly pray that the Creator of All that Is Good in the Universe gives you the inspiration that—no matter what has happened to you up until now—you will make today, the first day of the rest of your life.
“Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:20