If your gut tells you something awful might be brewing, you are not alone. In the darkest hours of the night, millions of uneasy Americans hear the bump of another Great Depression. They see the nation flat, beneath an Everest of debt.
Sound-minded people say that will never happen. You read their reasons daily, so I won't repeat them here. In the bright hours of the morning, everyone knows the optimists are right.
But the view from the pits cannot be denied. So it seemed worthwhile to talk to some pure, dyed-in-the-fur bears to see what they are doing with their money.
None qualifies better than the analytic team assembled by investment adviser Thomas J. Holt, who has warned for years that a shadow would lie across the land. Now he sees a free fall in the economy, "like an airplane that hits a sudden air pocket."
If you, too, assume the worst, here's how you ought to be investing now: No stocks. "Your portfolio should be completely clean by this time," the Holt team writes. No blue chips, no growth stocks, no utilities, no gold stocks, no equity mutual funds, no nothing.
No tangibles. The Holt team expects a deflation where hard assets will crumble and cash will be king.
No long-term bonds. "Since we expect deflation, one would think we'd be buying long bonds to lock in today's interest rates, but we don't think it's that simple," said Martin Weiss, research director for The Holt Advisory.
"There might be a money panic," with people dumping assets to raise money to cover their debts. That could mean lower bond prices and higher interest rates, even in deflation.
No real estate. We're approaching a replay of the 1930s, the team believes. "During those years, home and land prices dropped sharply. For a full 20 years thereafter, prices failed to recover substantially."
Investors in what are currently high-growth regions most assuredly will not be immune.
To investors in commercial real estate, they say "discount the price of your property deeply," to sell, sell, sell while you still have time.
To homeowners, they say: "Renting will be a greater value than owning." (Weiss, however, still owns his home, "for my wife and baby.")
If you do own, try to get rid of your mortgage so you won't be locked into high payments on a falling income.
Fixed-rate mortgages will become more burdensome in deflation. Adjustable loans would be better if interest rates behave traditionally -- but not if they rise in the money panic Weiss fears. And remember your house would be going down in value.
Less gold. The Holt team advises selling off some gold bullion. Deflation would slash gold prices along with those of other commodities, creating a buying opportunity later. But they're not selling all their gold. Assuming a money panic, Weiss said, gold prices would spike again.
Buy lots of short-term Treasury bills. Their value will be rising relative to the prices of stocks and acres of real estate, which will be falling. "For most people, that's the best way to make money in this environment," Weiss said.
Some five-year Treasury securities, for investors who need more income than they can get from short-term bills.
Some foreign currencies. Weiss said the dollar has farther to fall. So "one good method of improving the yield portion of one's savings is by buying the Treasury securities of hard-currency industrial nations, such as West Germany and Japan."
He's recommending Prudential Bache's closed-end Global Government Plus Fund, recently selling at around $10 on the New York Stock Exchange, with a current dividend rate of 12.8 percent.
The fund is roughly one-half invested in the U.S. dollar, 25 percent in West German marks and Japanese yen and 25 percent in a handful of other currencies.
One point: Even if the bears are wrong, their cautious squat would preserve capital, while waiting to see if the other shoe is really going to fall.