- - Sunday, January 26, 2014


Beyond Wall Street and Washington, the overwhelming majority of Americans do not buy the story that the nation’s economy has been repaired. Both political parties offer tales of progress, but we find ourselves asking, “If this is progress, why does progress feel so wrong?”

The numbers that matter

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles estimates of what Americans earn and spend each year in a Consumer Expenditure Survey.

In 2007, these estimates suggested that the bottom 80 percent of households took in an average of $38,299 in after-tax income and spent an average of $37,567, leaving a total of $732 to add to savings.

In 2012, the latest year for which comparable figures are available, the bottom 80 percent of households earned $39,637, spent $39,425, and saved just $212.

Interest rates have remained extremely low and the federal government has spent with abandon, yet the bottom 80 percent of households barely have covered their annual bills and have little hope of saving enough to live securely in retirement.

When heads of these households review their budgets each week, they must shudder as neighbors, friends and family members lose jobs or find their work hours cut.

How soon will those lucky enough to hold jobs be outsourced or replaced by machines?

If employers go out of business, what warning will they get and what cushion do they have?

For the bottom 80 percent, one wonders how Wall Street and Washington define failure.

Day of reckoning for the top 20

Until recently, the top 20 percent prospered under the Obama administration.

Since March 2009, rallying stock markets trumped concerns about the underlying strength of America’s economic recovery.

Wall Street titans partied on, K Street mavens channeled money back and forth, and incumbent politicians basked in self-important glory.

Lost in the hoopla was a fact that now comes into focus: Extraordinary actions by central banks to lower key interest rates pushed stock prices well above sustainable values. Analysts rightly question what happens when central bankers can no longer keep interest rates low.

So far this year, tremors in our stock markets and spreading chaos worldwide tell us that trouble is here and is not leaving soon.

The top 20 percent, who control more than 90 percent of America’s financial wealth, could feel the pain of a worldwide stock market correction.

Biggest event of the coming week

This year, truth paces before the front door, ready to reveal itself in a dramatic entrance.

Despite a pitifully thin record, President Obama will tout “accomplishments” in his State of the Union address Tuesday and cast scorn upon those who oppose his progressive agenda.

The audience will hear much about inequality, little about solutions, and even less about what his administration actually did with the trillions of dollars he has borrowed and spent since 2008.

Doubling down on anti-capitalist, soak-the-rich rhetoric is precisely what skittish investors believe will usher in the next round of a structural crisis.

Professional investors know enough already — they could rush faster to exit overvalued stocks and low-yielding bonds and trim exposure to the U.S. dollar.

If you have a secure place to store physical gold, this may be the time to recycle gains from the stock markets into the battered yellow metal.

Charles Ortel serves as managing director of Newport Value Partners (newportvalue.com), which provides economic research to executives and to investment firms.

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