I've seen better new years. The Nervous Nineties have essentially opened for business. Some parts of the country have already been overwhelmed by recession. Those not yet knocked over know how a standing domino feels.
Make no mistake about it, the early Nineties will be tough. Growth is slowing worldwide. In the United States, a lot of business, consumer and government debt has to be shoveled away. Still, in the midst of war fears and job fears, opportunities exist.
Housing. Bad news for sellers is good news for buyers. For the first time in a decade, the rate of homeownership among young people is edging up. Adjusted for inflation, a young family can buy a median-priced starter house for 4 percent less than it cost in 1979.
New mortgages. Loans are readily available for anyone with a job, a good credit rating, and not too much debt. The first-year rate on adjustable mortgages has dropped to an average of 7.8 percent, according to HSH Associates in Butler, N.J. Fixed-rate 30-year loans are averaging 9.8 percent, down half of a point from the summer.
Many lenders, however, are requiring higher down payments, or higher interest rates on low down-payment loans. Bank Rate Monitor reports that, in California, first-year rates on adjustable mortgages with 10 percent down payments have recently been rising to the 9 percent to 9.9 percent range.
Old mortgages. If you hold an adjustable mortgage tied to six-month or one-year Treasury bills and a rate change is due, your monthly payment may decline. Adjustable loans linked to a lender's average cost of funds, however, may remain unchanged for a while longer. Cost-of-funds indexes change more slowly than Treasury rates. If your mortgage rate adjusted this summer to the 11 percent range, you might want to refinance into a cheaper fixed-rate loan.
Jobs. In recessions, all eyes turn to the jobless. But most people stay at work. When your income holds up during a recession, you have a rare opportunity to acquire goods at bargain prices. That means you should be in the shops over the next few months, not out of them, because so many prices are being marked down.
But it is psychologically difficult to spend money when you can't tell for sure whether your job is safe. White-collar workers could arrive at work tomorrow and discover that their function has been dropped or their department pruned. The white-collar workers most at risk are in early middle age -- say, early 40s -- with salaries in the $40,000 to $50,000 range and no likelihood of promotion. They have "topped out" in their current jobs.
Investments. There is no better time to buy stock-owning mutual funds than during recessions, when prices are down. Make regular investments every month, through your company savings plan or by having your mutual fund make monthly withdrawals from your bank account. Stock prices may still drop -- but from an investor's point of view, that should make them even more attractive.
I know that many of you won't buy. You'll drive 50 miles to a factory outlet to get a coat at a half-price sale, but when Wall Street puts stocks on sale, you shy away. You'd rather wait and pay double the price.
You're making a mistake. Ten years from now, present prices will look astoundingly cheap.