On the anniversary of my entrance into the financial services arena in 1984 at the age of 28, I would like to take a moment to share some thoughts about America’s political and financial mess, our obsession with stuff, and how I see a way out.
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32
As I begin my 32nd year in and around the financial arena and soon shall celebrate my 59th entrance onto the stage of one of the magnificent creations of the Master of the Universe, this former Wall Street Whiz Kid (who doesn’t deserve to be called a whiz kid after making and losing millions more than once) has never been more concerned about the economic, social, political and spiritual state of the U.S.A.
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. (Not being able to hit the side of the barn in the last few years as a Soothsayer had something to do with it, also.)
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 back in April 1984, said to me on my first day in the office (I think only half in jest), “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 still believe he was joking about wives, he was dead serious about politics and religion. The underlying theme of his message was, “sell products, not personal opinions.”
Anyone who has known me since then knows I have never been shy of expressing my opinion, which regularly has a negative effect on selling more products. During far too much of the first 31 years, I did many things I don’t look forward to standing naked and alone in front of my Maker and explaining. My habit of being a legend in my own mind and turning the Ten Commandments into the Ten Suggestions will bring shame and remorse in my stance, not to mention many, many other sins. People sometimes ask Almighty God to be fair; I pray He’s merciful because if not, we’re all doomed.
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 can tell you from a business income prospective, I would do extremely better if I employed a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” outlook that is all too common throughout the financial services industry and much of the media that has their hips tied to them.
A common ploy within the financial services industry is to give the client a headache and then sell them an aspirin. While I shall not paint a promising picture here, please note that I’ve 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. I also invoke a Mark Twain saying now in all matters of my life, “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 this:
“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. And, 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 versus 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 also paying just the interest could become questionable.
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. While we know we now owe somewhere between 17 to 21 trillion dollars (that’s trillion with a “T”), our unfunded liabilities are estimated anywhere from another 50 to 100 trillion! Much of that is Social Security and Medicare payments older Americans believe they’re entitled to and will be there for them in the future.
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, Cramer?
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WILL CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS = CLASS WARFARE?
Another in a series of very troubling economic factors also becomes a critical social one as well -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 brewing. It shall be 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 sees 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.” 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 the color of his skin; instead, I came to that conclusion because of his total lack of work experience and personal beliefs he had expressed. 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-percent’s”, who have enjoyed gigantic gains in the financial markets and are not yet ready to give him the chair (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).
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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 ways that not only founded this once great country, but were its backbone for the first 200 or so years.
I believe the dramatic shift away from the intertwining of Judeo-Christian ways into all matter of American society, to the number of people who call themselves Christians yet are embracing “alternative lifestyles” and other ways of life our forefathers would surely have said could never come to pass, is at the core of what has gone wrong economically, socially and politically. This belief in itself would cause an outcry now despite still a fairly large majority believing it at its core. That’s exactly how screwed up political correctness has become.
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 kill off some who made it this far, 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 a manual which explains how to deal with this going forward—one which has been read by more people than all of the financial how-to books ever written—has some great pointers. The Holy Bible is not the “don’t do this and that” book some would have you believe, but is a great financial resource. Matters of finance and possessions are the second most talked about topic in the Bible, and half of the key pieces of advice—the parables—are about it.
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. I’ve yet to meet anyone with large amounts of debt relative to their worth who wishes they could only get more in debt.
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DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY!
The financial services industry and the advertising industry have combined for decades to create an illusion that more happiness equals more money. 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 this ad campaign 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.”
It’s been my belief for some time now that the vast majority who work on Wall Street (and the media that makes a good living following them) are all members of a club I call the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” crowd. It’s 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!”
There are a whole host of factors that trouble me greatly about the financial services industry. But two facts should not only send chills up the public’s spine, but be all the fair warning one needs:
- It’s been well-documented that a key factor that led to the last financial crisis that almost brought the whole world financial system to its knees (how glad the financial services industry is that the public is quick to forget such things) was the sub-prime mortgage debacle. To recap, the financial industry knowingly made hundreds of billions of bad mortgage-related loans and investments to the public whom they knew would likely not be able to repay the loans, and then actually took the other side to greatly profit from their default when it all went bad. Think of it like this: it’s as if the auto industry sold millions of cars they knew were built poorly and would crash AND bought life insurance on the buyers so they could collect again when they died from the poorly manufactured cars. It’s the ultimate in double dipping…or should I say “double profiting.” Yet, despite this egregious lack of ethics and credibility, I know of not one highly-ranked financial executive who went to jail for sending our country into a tailspin. To the best of my knowledge, almost all of those involved are still going at it today.
2. We learned about a year ago that a series of highly-sophisticated people and financial organizations were operating multi-billion dollar telecommunications systems which gave them advance knowledge of pending stock market orders so they could financially benefit. In a timeframe that’s so small it’s hard to grasp, their systems got “in front of” stock market orders, allowing them to buy what those orders were set to purchase, and then put those same orders back for sale for just a penny or two higher, raking in billions of profits without any risk of losing a dime.I’ll describe it in a way that most people can hopefully appreciate: it’s as if these folks saw your grocery shopping list as you were heading to the grocery store, bought all the items, and then put them back out for sale just a penny or so higher so they could profit from what they know you needed to buy…without you knowing what was happening. And far worse than the mortgage scam, this “front-running” was all legal. I like to say when I first came a stockbroker back in April of 1984, the financial playing field was tilted against the average Joe. Today, he/she is DOA (dead on arrival).
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I can’t and won’t give investment advice, but when I look at where we stand economically, socially, politically and spiritually both here and abroad, a few thoughts of mine 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. Right now, the financial markets are screaming, “Oink, oink!” Read and watch this
- 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 vs. reward seems heavily tilted now towards risk.
- The ultimate crime in investing is not being wrong, its’ staying wrong. (I could be a poster boy for this these last few years.)
- 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 and none. Billy Ray Valentine Says It All
Like it or not, how we handle our finances will have a significant impact on our lives and those we care about. Having proven that I am an authority on the don’ts as well as the do’s, I truly pray as billions of people prepare for the holiest time of the year, 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, that you will make today, the first day of the rest of your life.