Expect a Different Investing Landscape By 2020

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Posted: Oct 14, 2008 12:01 AM
Expect a Different Investing Landscape By 2020

"Time, time, time, see what's become of me," sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1966 (and the Bangles in 1987), "while I looked around for my possibilities."

Time and possibilities are a jumble in the 2008 investment world, but looking ahead rather than behind is what investing is all about.

Experts agree that fundamental changes under way in our financial system will provide a different scenario for tending to our money in the year 2020. The united resolve of International Monetary Fund nations to "use all available tools" to prevent major financial institution failures indicates the global nature of that scenario.

A lot will depend on financial institutions, on government and on us. Either we learn from what went wrong and revise our credit and saving habits, or we're doomed to repeat mistakes.

Some believe the current shakedown bodes well for the future.

"Investing will have changed significantly for the better by 2020," said Bruce Bittles, chief investment strategist for Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird Inc. "We're in the position we are today because the country over several decades had become a nation of consumers, not savers, who had been borrowing to buy foreign goods."

A dozen years from now, U.S. consumers will have returned to a more traditional savings ethic and will save 8 percent of their income, which was the savings rate until it began eroding in the 1990s, Bittles said. And don't worry too much about a slow economy, he added.

"A protracted slow economy doesn't mean the stock market can't do well, because the market typically does well in a slow-growth economy," Bittles said.

"It will be very bullish long-term if we move back into a savings ethic in which we fund our own liabilities and loans."

The investor mind-set must be patience because it will take a while to get through current woes, said Chris Brown, chief investment strategist for Pax World Management Corp. in Portsmouth, N.H. Companies that survive as winners will be stronger and face less competition.

He noted that Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway is obviously excited about possibilities because he invested in Goldman Sachs and General Electric Co. as seemingly once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

"We're going to see people saving more for retirement, but they'll also be working longer because they hadn't saved enough early on," Brown said. "By 2020, there will be a huge shift in spending habits in which saving, not spending, is rewarded and you'll no longer be punished for saving by low interest rates."

We must remember not to have short memories.

"I would assume that people and investment firms in 2020 will remember the dangers of leverage," said E. William Stone, chief investment strategist with PNC Wealth Management in Philadelphia. "We may have a better appreciation for seemingly hidden risk or the risk of chasing excess returns."

Because investment returns will revive at various times throughout the 2010 decade, there's a chance this could energize investors to chase returns once again, Stone said. The lessons of today may have been forgotten and greed will take over again.

The undeniable staying power of greed has other experts worried.

"By 2020, peoples' tolerance for risk will return," said Lawrence Harris, professor of finance and business economics at USC's Marshall School of Business.

Yet in 2020 you'll find positive differences, such as the greater importance of alternative energy. That means plenty of windmills in the Midwest and oceans, but oil prices "going through the roof," Harris predicted. There will be long-term upward pressure on commodities due to growth in the world population and rising education levels that make people more prosperous, he said.

Experts hope it will become easier to invest in understandable instruments in 2020. Many of today's problems were masked in complex financial vehicles with obscure descriptions. Subprime was only widely understood when it was too late.

"You may see a movement toward simplicity on the part of investors in which complex products are shunned, but that will take a while," Stone said. "A lot of complex financial products currently aren't traded on exchanges, so we may also see a push to have more of them on exchanges where they can be monitored closely."

Global markets will loom large in 2020.

The U.S., Europe, China and India should remain locked in "very, very slow" economic growth for a long period of time, predicted Bittles. Yet even though China, India and Latin America may falter the next couple of years, Harris considers it inevitable their economies will grow.

There will likely be one global system with united goals, as foreshadowed recently by the IMF, rather than 200 independent economies, Brown said. The U.S. will be the biggest driver, but by 2020 a number of emerging economies will also have clout.

For now, expect the rising U.S. dollar and falling foreign securities to continue to give American investors a double dose of financial pain, Bittles said.

Then there is the fear that problems won't be sorted out.

"I see the main danger in the next two or three years that government will interfere more in business, but that is not an effect going out 12 years," Harris said. "I also think U.S. investors may prefer foreign investments in the future because they're sick of what's happening here."