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Waiting on Obama

Job One: Restore faith in economy

December 28, 2008|TOM PETRUNO

"Change is coming," the new president promises.

For investors and savers, that offers reasons to be both hopeful and fearful. More than likely, your personal finances already have been through enough wrenching change this year to last a lifetime.

We've witnessed a credit crisis of astounding magnitude, the demise of companies that were pillars of the U.S. financial system, massive government aid to shore up the system's survivors, the collapse of stock and commodity markets worldwide, and the slashing of short-term interest rates to near zero.

What began as a real estate crash two years ago now is an economy-wide nightmare -- maybe the worst slump since the 1930s. As for the value of your home, it's probably still falling.

For those Americans with stock mutual funds in their 401(k) savings accounts, the average decline year to date is about 40%. Just to get back to even, a fund that's down 40% would have to rise 67%.

President-elect Barack Obama was elected to fix what went wrong. But he obviously won't be able to accomplish that overnight. And the risk is that the government's fixes for the financial system and economy could make things worse -- or be too late.

Nonetheless, it would be absurd to think that Uncle Sam could just stay on the sidelines given the severity of the financial system's woes and the resulting economic fallout.

So government intervention -- the Obama administration's policies and those of the Federal Reserve -- will be crucial in shaping expectations for the economy and markets in 2009, far more than usual.

If we boil it down, there are three key questions that will confront investors and savers in the new year, as Obama comes to power:

Will the economy recover in 2009?

Most analysts believe that the worst of this recession already is upon us. Goldman Sachs & Co. economists, for example, are forecasting that real U.S. gross domestic product (the inflation-adjusted total of goods and services produced) will slump at a 5% annualized rate this quarter, followed by a 3% drop in the first quarter of 2009, a 1% decline in the second quarter and then 1% growth in both the third and fourth quarters.

Optimism about a turnaround by midyear rests in large part on expectations for a huge government stimulus program to help fill the gap left by depressed consumer and corporate spending.

The latest numbers from the Obama camp suggest a spending program of nearly $800 billion over two years to fund infrastructure projects, tax cuts and aid to states.

What's more, similar government stimulus plans are in the works abroad.

Carl Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., predicts that "fiscal stimulus in large size will be applied to all, or at least most, of the world's economies starting sometime early in the first quarter."

The money itself will help boost the global economy, but the psychological effect on frightened consumers and business owners also should be a big factor in spurring a turnaround, Weinberg said.

"Everyone will perceive that the governments are 'in' for an unprecedented round of new public spending" or tax cuts, he said.

As for the Federal Reserve, it already has won the global race to the bottom in short-term interest rates: Beating out other central banks, U.S. policymakers voted Dec. 16 to let their key rate fall as low as zero and stay there indefinitely. The Fed also pledged again to work at pulling down long-term interest rates.

The question is whether all of this government firepower will be enough. Wall Street wants to be optimistic, but it's haunted by this reality: Almost no one foresaw how bad the credit crunch would become, or how far financial markets would crash as the crunch worsened last fall.

That raises suspicions about the consensus forecast for an economic rebound by mid-2009.

Inevitably, the accuracy of the projections will ride on consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of the U.S. economy. If Americans keep their wallets closed, a recovery can't happen.

Susan Sterne, head of Economic Analysis Associates in Greenwich, Conn., thinks it's a mistake to count the consumer out in 2009. Although home equity and stock market wealth has taken a heavy hit, people are reaping the benefit of the dive in gasoline prices, and many will enjoy substantial savings in the first quarter by refinancing their mortgages, she said. (Of course, refis won't help homeowners who are underwater.)

"When consumers are very pessimistic, it takes multiple events to make them feel better," Sterne says. The Obama administration's spending program, lower gas prices and a new mortgage refi boom could help do the trick by midyear, she says.

But if she's wrong, the administration will be forced to go back to the drawing board for a way to keep fears of a depression from swamping the national psyche.

Will deflation take hold?

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