So, if you haven't been paying attention to character development or lost sight of the plot, you're going to be frozen onstage when it's your turn to act.
Here's your script and some direction.
The set-up went like this: The audience walked into the world theater in September 2008. They took their seats and read the card left on their velvet chairs. It was short. It said:
Act I opens with the backdrop of mounting tension as insanely leveraged homeowners, consumers and banks scramble to make sense of declining home prices. The curtain lifted and the show began. The first act was dramatic, but ended in March 2009.
Act II began immediately without an intermission. Asset prices began to climb from their depths thanks to massive global stimulus.
But, Act II also revealed the tragic nature of this play. In spite of "green shoots" and rising commodity and stock prices promising a return to normalcy, the truth is that the world changed before the credit crisis and the Great Recession. There's a "new normal."
Globalization has increased labor pools, lowering costs and causing massive shifts in manufacturing realities, while productivity gains orphaned an army of white collar, middle-management sergeants, mostly in the developed world.
Seismic shifts in emerging markets were met with inflows of capital, while in developed countries, especially Europe and the United States, outflows of capital were offset by politicians borrowing more from future generations to promise retirees they would be able to retire.
As Act II comes to a conclusion at the end of this year, and Act III is going to look completely different. In fact, it might be titled...
That's what 2012 is going to feel like - a bad hangover.
There are fewer workers working in America today than there were in March 2000. One reason is that there are 6.6 million fewer jobs in the U.S. today than there were just four years ago.
Some 23 million people want to work full time, but can't find a job. Half of the unemployed in America are long-term unemployed, meaning they've been out of work for more than a year.
Not only is it hard to find jobs, most of the unemployed don't have the skills to fill the jobs that are out there. And, structurally, the mobility of workers in America has crumbled as homeowners can't sell their houses to move to where jobs are or might be. Need I mention that rents are rising too?
Average household income in the U.S. is less than 1% greater than it was back in 1989, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve. And over the past six years, household net worth relative to disposable income is lower by 20% as a result of overleveraged and declining home values.
Meanwhile, more than 2 billion workers from Asian and Eastern European countries have joined the global labor pool.
While on the surface, a larger labor force may be good for producers, at the other end of the supply chain, lower wages mean less purchasing power on an aggregate basis.
It's not inflation that we have to worry about, it's the continuing deleveraging of households and countries, and the threat of deflation that will make 2012 a sad act to follow.
The stimulus in the U.S. and in Europe that was gifted to banks in the hopes that they would spread the wealth has been an abject failure.
Asset prices, including commodities, rose as excess liquidity remained in speculators' hands instead of being funneled into long-term investment projects to rebuild crumbling infrastructure.
Now, with budget-busting deficits and massive long-term structural debts, we are being led by combative politicians to the wishing well of productive spending and being told there is no more water in the well.
If our collective thirst for productive long-term investment - okay, call it stimulus spending - is not slaked, we will dehydrate our economy and cause another dust bowl, only this one will be worse than the Great Depression.
So, how are you going to act?
It would be wise to continue to be defensive - that is, until Act III seems to be coming to an end, which may be possible by the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2012.
If deleveraging continues -- and you'll know if that changes (watch for any significant and sustainable uptick in inflation) -- then commodities and risk assets should stay on the shelf.
There'll be plenty of time to go shopping for risk-on assets, especially commodities. If by the first quarter of 2012 there is no resolution to Europe's debt issues, and if China continues to slow, risk-on assets will be shed with increasing speed and volatility.
I like big-capitalization, high-dividend paying (preferably 4% to 5%, or more) stocks of companies sitting on huge capital reserves and NOT spending them on buybacks.
I like selling calls on these stocks and I like selling puts, too.
I want income from selling premium. If your appreciated stock gets called away, good, you're ringing the cash register. If the puts you sold cause you to have to buy more stock at a lower price, good, you are averaging down into great stocks whose dividend yields are only increasing (as long as they are not cutting payouts).
The way to act in this tragic environment is as if your most important role is preserving capital, because that's what's going to make you shine when there's a new play to act in.
News and Related Story Links:
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The Five Stocks You Have to Own in 2012
U.S. Economy 2012 Forecast: Where to Find the Biggest Gainers and Avoid the Biggest Losers in This Year's Rocky Markets
Gold Price Outlook 2012: Miners Will Shine as Prices Soar
Why the U.S. Economy Will Be Weaker Than Expected in 2012
Rising Wages in China Good for Glocals, But Few Jobs Coming Back