'It's The End of the World' Is Really About Selling Fear

by: Roger Nusbaum

Paul Farrell had a column up yesterday that detailed 10 reasons why 2012 will be a doomsday. Included in the list are failings of US democracy, class warfare and some disturbing prognostications about global warfare.

If you read the paragraphs that Farrell wrote on those points, it is hard to disagree with the nature of the problems he cites. However these are not new issues and Farrell offers no reason as to why 2012 must be a tipping point for any of them. While I apologize for not taking the time to look I would venture to say that these points or similar ones were predicted by him to be tipping points in previous years.

Expectations of torn social fabric, or the breaking down of society were made at the beginning of the crisis and have not panned out and are unlikely to. Some things have gotten worse and will continue to get worse but we collectively can adapt better than most, probably not all, countries. To repeat an idea I have mentioned frequently, the US is the world's most important customer and so other countries have a vested stake in our remaining functional. Remaining functional is not a Jim-Paulsenian argument to be bullish but does argue for the US' ongoing ability to slog through as we have been.

Some of the other reasons cited by Farrell seem totally disconnected from the thesis of doomsday. His number 7 was about market technology whose consequence is that "average investors are no match for Wall Street’s 'high-frequency traders.' " He's probably right here for average investors who actually try to hit bids and lift offers faster than the machines but more practically average investors buy a few shares of broad based ETFs or blue-chip stocks with the intention of holding long term not to scalp pennies before lunchtime.

Further, individuals have always been disadvantaged when compared with professionals and they always will be. No argument from me if anyone thinks that is wrong but it is hardly new. It is not plausible that a decades old issue can cause a breakdown in the magnitude he seems to suggest.

Farrell's last reason for doomsday was actually a suggestion of sorts about what to do in the face of doomsday, not a cause of it. He cites advice given by Barton Biggs about being able to grow your own food, real everyone into the bunker stuff, except that advice from Biggs came from a book published in 2008. Based on what I have seen of Biggs' TV appearances he appears to have distanced himself from those opinions (please comment if I have that wrong).

We have real and seemingly (almost) unprecedented problems but end of the world arguments like "the next crisis, according to Weiss, 'will destroy the incomes, savings, investments and retirements of millions of Americans.' Yes, destroy. 'It will plunge vast numbers of families into the nightmare of poverty … hunger … and homelessness. Only a minority of investors will survive intact' " have been made for thousands of years, there has always been a big market for selling fear.

It is important to understand the threats but not overreact to them. It is also important to understand the hopium sold by Wall Street and understand how markets and compounding can work. Understanding both sides gives a better chance for successful critical thinking that is required for successful cycle navigation.

Away from investing we need to do our best to be healthy (fit might be a better word) and remain individually adaptive. We can't know how our individual circumstances might evolve. While I hope that my financial situation never relies on my generating an income from being an EMT if it ever does, then I will be grateful that I went through the process.

The need for innovative personal solutions, a long-running theme here, will become increasingly more important as time goes on. My neighbor with the backhoe is the best example of this that I know.