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2008 Economic and Investment Outlook

Jan 8, 2008
The economy faces serious challenges in 2008: 1. New home sales are at a 16 year low and may go lower; 2. Inflation will be high for the next few months as energy and food prices work their way through the economy; 3. Retail sales will be weak, as evidenced by the Christmas season; 4. Illiquidity in the credit markets will spread from mortgages to auto loans and credit cards due to financial companies tightening their lending standards; 5. Adjustable rate and subprime mortgage problems will continue; 6. Corporate profits will turn negative.

These factors will contribute to, but not cause, the 2008 recession and they will be somewhat mitigated by strong export demand (thanks to the weak dollar) and, at least for the time being, good unemployment numbers.

The decline in the value of existing homes is what will cause the 2008 recession and cause it to be the most severe recession since the early 1980s (although not all that bad by historical standards). The bulk of the average American's savings is in their home and their net worth is decreasing.

There will be far fewer mortgage refinancings and home equity loans to monetize housing values. Declining housing values will cause/force consumers to cut back spending.

Existing home prices were down 3.3% for the twelve months ending in November. Although sales were up slightly in November, they're still down 20% from a year ago. Record levels of foreclosures and mortgages which rates adjust in 2008 make it unlikely the November up tick will be sustained.

There will be no economic recovery until housing prices bottom. The Fed will cut rates to combat the economic downturn but financial institutions stricter lending standards will mitigate the impact of the Fed's actions. Thus, we should expect up to four quarters of negative economic growth.

Morgan Stanley, in their December 10 Strategy piece, looked at historical stock market declines and concluded that, on average, the S&P declines 9.5% from its peak to the start of a recession, 18% from there to its bottom, then rebounds by 25% through the end of the recession.

The S&P (and the Dow and NASDAQ) is off about 5% from its 2007 high. This suggests another 23% decline until it reaches its recessionary low. Forecasting is not an exact science (far from it) and the U.S. economy has proven to be remarkably resilient. Also, the S&P is trading at a reasonable level, based on its P/E ratio, so maybe the decline will be less this time, say 15% from current levels.

How do you invest for a recession? For stocks and mutual funds look for companies which sell consumer necessities, heath care companies, companies with large foreign sales, high dividend (make sure its secure) stocks and invest internationally.

Bonds typically perform well during recessions because of falling interest rates. But with Treasury yields already low and the uncertainties surrounding corporate bonds, you would be wise to keep your fixed income investments short-term until the credit situation resolves itself. What you shouldn't do, though, is get out of the stock market.

The U.S. will come through this recession as it has every other and economic growth will drive the stock market to new highs. As the Morgan Stanley report points out, the stock market rises sharply prior to the end of a recession and nobody can pick the turning point.

Lastly, although I don't advocate market timing, I'd put new 401-K and IRA contributions into cash for the time being. Cash is king in times like these.
About the Author
Bill Byrnes is co-founder of MUTUALdecision, top mutual funds , providing investors with data on the top mutual funds, and author of the MUTUALdecision Blog. He's been CEO, chairman and served on the board of directors of several public and private companies. He holds MBA and JD degrees and is a Chartered Financial Analyst with over 30 years experience in the investment industry.
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