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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ben Stein's Advice for Uncertain Times

The night before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, he gave a memorable, inspiring speech. At its end, he said, "I don't know what's going to happen with me now. We've got some difficult days ahead...."

Unfortunately, this is true now about the American (and global) economy. I wish I could say I knew what was going to happen in the future. I have learned that I do not. I was not given the gift or the burden of foresight. I thought that our government would not let the bottom fall out. I was wrong. I am sorry.

So given that I do not know the future, what can I tell you that will be useful? Actually, quite a bit.

Cash Really Is King

First, taking the advice of my dear pal Ray Lucia, rock and roll star and investment guru, I can tell you that, no matter what happens, it will be good to have a nice chunk of money in cash or near cash. Yes, I know we may soon have inflation. But if we do, the rates on money market funds will rise. Cash is just a lovely thing to have in almost situation. Cash or near cash offers a level of comfort that even a large portfolio of stocks does not offer.

Taking a cue from my dear pal Phil DeMuth of Conservative Wealth Management, I can tell you that, if you think we are definitely at a bottom, you might be fooled. While Phil's research tells us that we may be near a bottom by postwar metrics of price, price to earnings, and price to dividends, we may have ( as Phil puts it ) "jumped the tracks of history."

My own view is that we have been fooled so much in the past 15 months about what real earnings are, what real book value is, that we cannot trust the data given to us. Yes, by current price-earnings measures, stocks look fairly reasonable. But we don't really know what true earnings are. That is the vicious truth. So if we are in the quicksand of not being able to rely on the data our companies give out, then anything can happen. Yes, we may be at a bottom or near it. Or we may not be anywhere near a bottom.

Anything Can Happen

Just to illustrate, who would have dreamed a few weeks ago that Citi would be in the kind of trouble it is in, even after a $45 BILLION infusion from the federal government? Anything can happen in the treacherous world in which we find ourselves.

Third, taking counsel from my pal Barron Thomas, very possibly the best salesman on the planet, I will tell you a rule of indisputable value in this or any economic situation: WORK.

Barron is in the real estate and private plane businesses. These are both highly impacted by the economic slowdown. How does Barron deal with it? He gets up at 5 a.m. every day and works the phones from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., goes home, makes notes, and then sleeps well until he starts all over again. And he closes the deals. There are still plenty of people who will make the deal at the right price.

Keep on Working

Next, from yours truly: Work is deeply therapeutic. It makes us feel better. It gives us a much better attitude about ourselves. It makes us feel as if we are worth something. A middle class person who works has a far better self image than a rich person who does not work. Work is a gift, a sacrament, a true blessing. Plus, people who work are generally going to have higher incomes and higher standards of life than people who do not work.

If times are tough, work harder than ever. You will get through the rough patches and learn how strong you really are. Do not seek to avoid work -- embrace it.

Then, finally, I will tell you something I do when I feel buffeted by the markets. I dig into the 12-step program that has saved my life for the past 20 years. Using its precepts, I say to myself, "I am powerless over the stock market. It is all up to God. I do the very best I can, and after that, it's up to God."

Know What's Important

If you don't believe in God, then you can substitute "fate." Powerlessness is a huge source of power. Try it. You will like it.

"We shall overcome," we used to sing at civil rights demonstrations when we were getting tear gassed. "We are not afraid." Now I lie in bed at night and say to myself that if the men and women at military hospitals in this country and abroad can get through what they do, if their families can go through what they go through, then I can deal with market volatility -- trivial by comparison.

And so -- here it is. I do not know how it -- the stock market and economic turmoil -- will end, but to paraphrase The Bard, it will end, and that suffices.