Moving Forward in the New Normal: Surviving And Thriving In A Changed Economy
Is anybody else as fed up as I am with hearing about how bad things are? Let's get on with it already and start focusing on what we can do to survive--and thrive--in the new reality.
Periods of meltdown and renewal are not at all unusual for the United States. Read John Steele Gordon's book An Empire of Wealth for numerous examples of American ingenuity and stick-to-it-ness pulling us back from the brink of financial meltdown. This is the time when we need to pull ourselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, dust ourselves off, and figure out how we are going to push forward. At the risk of stating what should be painfully obvious, here are my thoughts on some of the things we can try to get "unstuck" and help us move forward:
- Retool. It's time to stop pining for what we've lost and start embracing the fact that the ground rules have changed. In financial services, for example, while mortgage underwriting is down, workout specialists and credit counselors are in demand. Given the current run rate of just over 500,000 new homes per year, we are probably not going back to developing 2 million new homes per year any time soon--if ever. This means there are loads of folks in the construction business and in ancillary businesses from appliance and carpet manufacturers to mortgage and insurance underwriters who need to seriously consider retraining for other careers. All sorts of industries (auto, apparel, railroad, etc.) have had to recreate themselves over the decades as progress marched on. Ask all the middle managers displaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the conglomerates of the 1970s were unwound. The initial period was heart-rending, but the long-term result yielded new, vital industries creating careers unimagined just a few years before.
- Live within our means. Whether by choice or by the will of creditors, many of us are already doing this in our own households, the nonprofits we assist, and the businesses we own. Companies are doing it too, as Corporate America remains cash rich and operationally lean in aggregate. Now we need to demand that our politicians put us on a course to balance budgets at the local, state, and federal levels before investors (a.k.a. the creditors of the municipal markets) force the issue.
- Get used to asset class returns in the low to middle single digits. The incessant search for higher yields and returns is leading, yet again, to the creation of synthetics and doc-lite loans while putting extra risk in the market. Aging Boomers are reducing their exposure to the stock market in an attempt to reduce volatility in their portfolios as they near and enter retirement. If we could collectively stop pushing the envelope in search of the double-digit returns of the late 1990s, and rest comfortably knowing that single-digit returns can compound nicely too (especially if there is less volatility involved in generating them), perhaps there would be fewer sleep aids needed.
- Learn to push back against the undue influence of the media. Keep in mind the media has a vested interest in circulation figures and ad revenue. It's been proven time and again that feel-good stories just don't sell as well. And non-incumbent politicians don't tend to get elected by citizens content with the status quo. Few of us stop to consider these motivations when presented with yet another sensationalistic sound bite. And, as behavioral scientists point out, these sound bites actually prompt us to want to take action. When we are continually bombarded with news about how bad we have it and how bad we are supposed to feel, what other choice do we have? Suggestion: Keep a file of blatant headlines for a year and thumb through it on New Year's Day. You will be amazed at the seesawing of emotions. Focus on your own successes and choose to convey what's going right in your own household, on your block, in your company, etc.
- Redefine success. What does success mean to you? Accumulating a big pot, or leaving behind a memorable legacy? All too often we get so caught up in the rat race of acquiring, protecting, and growing our financial wherewithal we forget that life is about oh-so-much-more. At your 90th birthday party, as you look back, what will "success" look like for you?
I've heard that welders and over-the-road truckers are in short supply. Maybe it's time to rethink the old prescription that a college education (and the ensuing debt) is the way to long-term financial security. Perhaps tech and trade schools are an increasingly attractive alternative, especially with many of the basic trades so underrepresented in new graduate ranks.
If we all put our heads together and keep these recommendations in mind, perhaps we can create our own tipping point and turn the tide of pessimism into positive, constructive action.
Carol M. Schleif, CFA, is a partner and investment principal of Lowry Hill, a Wells Fargo business. Lowry Hill is a private asset management firm that provides proprietary investment management and financial services to families, individuals, and foundations with wealth greater than $10 million. The firm manages approximately $4.7 billion in assets for nearly 300 families and 56 foundations from offices in Minneapolis, Naples, Fla., and Scottsdale, Ariz. Schleif (formerly Clark) welcomes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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