Here are some current headlines from three of the premier mainstream media publications dealing with business and the economy:
The Wall Street Journal
March May Be Quite Cruel
Top Bankers Defend Pay Packages
MBIA Dislikes Fitch's Ratings Models
Markets End Week With A Slide
Margin Calls Throttle Thornburg
U.S. Payrolls Shrink Dramatically
MTV Reveals Computer Breach
The New York Times
In California, A Generational Tale Of Real Estate Boom And Bankruptcy
As Foreclosures Rise, Investors Pull Back
Aversion to Risk Deepens Credit Woes
Apple To Encourage iPhone Programmers
Alabama County Facing Deadline On Sewer Debt
Discounters Led Retailers Last Month
The Financial Times
My sense is that we are going to see almost exactly these same headlines again and again and again for the next 2-3 years. They capture what I consider to be a representative mix of short- and long-term trends, trends about which investors and all citizens should be aware when trying to get a grip on what the future holds.
1. The economy sucks now, and will continue to do so well into 2009 and perhaps beyond. This isn't because I'm a bear; it's because I'm a pragmatist. The types of deeply embedded problems facing the U.S. economy (and, therefore, impacting economies the world over) don't resolve themselves in a matter of months. We're talking years.
2. The real estate bust is a major reason for our despair. While the problems in California are acute and perhaps among the worst in the country, they are indicative of problems across the U.S. and the stories we are hearing and being played out in dozens of markets. Further, the ripple effect on Wall Street and Main Street are not only hitting the banks and investment banks, but the bond insurers, investors, employers and the broader economy.
3. Fears across the financial sector will make things worse, thereby fueling more fear and making things worse, and on and on. This negative feedback loop will continue until the excesses are stripped out of the system, excesses of such a magnitude that it will easily take 2-3 years before the depths of despair have been wrung out of the myriad toxic portfolios and balance sheets out there. It is what it is, and what it is really, really sucks.
4. Municipalities will be hurting, placing tremendous financial strains on states and the Federal government just as tax revenues are declining. Increasing funding costs and reduced tax receipts will threaten cities that overspent while times were good, leaving them with difficult debts to service when times are bad. And with an economy encountering general malaise, its not as if state coffers have the resources to help out much. That leaves our already debt-stretched Federal government. Terrific. Just what we needed. Not.
5. Computer security will continue to be a pressing issue. As more of our lives move online, and as richer and richer data is out there to be used appropriately or by bad actors, we'll see more and more examples of data theft and security breaches. It is somewhat analogous to the steroids users and steroid testing; the labs coming up with designer drugs are always at least one step ahead of the testers. Similarly, the bad guys, their resources and impressive collaboration represent a real and present danger to our data security now and in the future.
6. Previously closed systems will become increasingly open. Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) release of an SDK for the iPhone is only one example of formerly proprietary, "walled gardens" becoming open, seeking to leverage the collective intelligence and creativity of developers everywhere. Facebook is doing it. MySpace is doing it. Microsoft is starting to do it. It is a megatrend that will not be stopped.
7. Seemingly recession-proof sectors prove not to be recession-proof. When things are going badly the "vice stocks" do great, right? Well, maybe not. Casino expansion has occurred at a break-neck pace, with stock prices and market caps rising in parallel. My guess is that the casino business will fall on hard times, as all those marginal gamblers will stay away while the merely wealthy (versus the mega-wealthy) gamblers will cut back their "leisure gambling." Conversely, discounters should outperform retailers as consumers pare back spending to deal with their lack of job security and high debt levels.
8. Emerging markets will continue to progress, driving convergence with the developed markets. This is a megatrend that has moved in fits and starts, but seems to me to be moving forward at an inexorable pace. It is just not stopping, and this is good for the global financial markets and investors everywhere.
There are certainly others to be mentioned but I think these eight are pretty good. I feel like I don't need to read the paper until after 2010. I'm pretty confident of what it will be saying between now and then.