From every corner of the economy, alarm bells are going off. Inflation is up; debts are defaulting; unemployment is worse; some big banks are troubled; growth is barely visible and, politically, chaos reigns. For consumers, here's the outlook:
Your job. "Downsizing," as layoffs are now so soullessly called, will intensify. The industries hurt already in 1990 are in for more trouble in 1991 -- among them, textiles, construction and most manufacturing.
Other industries cutting back include airlines, trucking, newspapers, retailing, banking and government at all levels. Asked for industries that might be immune, Richard Berner, an economist with Salomon Brothers Inc., proposed only health care and oil drilling.
Your personal chances of dodging the bullet depend a lot on where you live. New England crashed a year ago with no bottom in sight. True recession has also arrived in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Northeast's decline will not be easily arrested, says Sara Johnson, an analyst for DRI/McGraw-Hill, an economic forecasting firm in Lexington, Mass. Manufacturers are deserting the region permanently because of the high cost of doing business there.
Your spending. The price indexes hover between Iraq and a hard place. Even before the shadow war for the oil fields, consumer prices were pushing up. The annualized inflation rate for the first six months of 1990 was 5.9 percent -- the highest since 1982. Now comes oil, practically raising the indexes to double-digit rates.
Economists hope that the oil-driven price gains will fall back after a couple of months. But if they get into the "core" inflation rate (defined as all price increases except those for food and energy), the downturn may be far more severe than is currently forecast. In no downturn in recent memory has it been so crucial to hang on to some emergency funds.
Your savings. Money-market mutual funds were paying an average of 7.5 percent last week. That's 1.6 points more than you'd get from the average bank money-market account. The highest rated money funds are paying up to 3 percentage points more than you might get from your bank.
One-year Treasury bills yield 7.7 percent. To me, there are no better ports in a storm.
Your wages. Except for top executives, wage and salary gains are expected to fall below inflation this year, and maybe next year, too. That makes it all the more important to reduce spending and conserve cash.
Your investments. Some of the best investments have been tied to dollar devaluation. When the dollar declines, the value of foreign investments go up. The weak dollar is another legacy of the 1980s -- specifically, the trade deficits. In order to repay that debt, the United States has to export more and import less. The cheaper dollar forces that upon us, by raising the cost of imported goods while making our goods more competitive abroad.
A declining dollar favors foreign bond funds (up 11.8 percent over the past 12 months). Two such: Fidelity Global Bond and T. Rowe Price International Bond, both recommended by Tyler Jenks of the Boston firm Kanon Bloch Carre.
As for U.S. stocks, today's bears are a scary lot. The optimists see further drops of 15 percent or so, and an upturn within a few months; the pessimists see a genuine crash, lasting through 1992.
Still, long-term investors should keep on making regular, monthly payments into stock-owning mutual funds. You make money in the long run by buying during recessions, when prices are cheap.