We've Killed the Green Shoots. What Now?

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Remember last year's comforting rhetoric about the U.S. economy? I wasn't the only one who tired of the "green shoots" metaphor, nor the only one who suspected those hopeful sprigs were fake and plastic. And now, folks, it looks like the green shoots are dead.

Still, now is not the time to give up. It's time to take a frank assessment of the economy and marketplace, realize the errors of our short-term ways, and think about fixing the poor attitudes that set us up for disaster down the road.

The litany of bearish bad news
It's hard to have a real recovery with unemployment unpleasantly stable around 10%. Worse, a more inclusive measure of unemployment -- the U6 figure -- is perched at a chilling 16.6%. Jobless claims spiked last week, and folks seem to be realizing that the so-called "recovery" is hitting a roadblock, if it ever really existed at all.

Meanwhile, the housing market "recovery" looks more like a house of straw. Take away the first-time homebuyer tax credit (and add fragile consumer spending), and companies like Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL  ) , Lennar (NYSE: LEN  ) , KB Home (NYSE: KBH  ) , Beazer (NYSE: BZH  ) , and Hovnanian (NYSE: HOV  ) have reason to worry. New home construction in May plunged 10% to a five-month low, with little sign that the market will improve.

BP's (NYSE: BP  ) debacle in the Gulf of Mexico isn't just an environmental disaster. The resulting loss of livelihoods and possible displacement of individuals is an economic disaster, too -- and we need another one of those like a hole in the head.

President Barack Obama may have talked of other things he wished to kick, where BP was concerned, but presidents of both parties have gotten expert at booting problems down the road. Both the current and past administrations have undertaken bailouts and unsustainable spending for years. Federal spending so far in this fiscal year has been a mind-blowing $2.28 trillion, nearly $1 trillion more than it's collected so far. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned that this is unsustainable; today, Alan Greenspan chimed in, too. Sorry, Keynesians -- even Keynes himself would kick your you-know-what for continuing deficit spending over the long term with no savings.

I had to fight off a wave of nausea when I glanced at our public debt, which now stands at more than $13 trillion. Many of our state governments look like actors in a Greek tragedy. And speaking of Greece and the Eurozone, their current fears reflect the hideous reality of what happens when inefficient, spendthrift governments shell out money they do not have for long periods of time. (In short, exactly what ours has been doing.)

Who cares? We all should
The Economist cited the email of a BP manager, when an unsafe decision was made prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster: "Who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine."  

We know how that turned out. Unfortunately, too many people throughout our economy have thought that way for too long.

We can never afford a "Who cares, it'll probably be fine" attitude about serious issues, nor should we encourage folks to ignore unpleasant potential outcomes that "probably" won't happen. How many "Black Swan events" do we have to experience before we learn?

Serious investors need to stop speculating. We need to stop investing in companies like BP and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) because we think we'll turn a fast buck or collect a dividend check, while shrugging off the socially unproductive ways they appear to conduct business.

Let's search for companies to invest in that do things the right way -- businesses that truly innovate, instead of lobbying politicians for unfair advantage in the marketplace. Let's set our sights on truly investing in high-quality companies for the long term. And if we do hold shares in more dysfunctional companies, we should start holding them accountable.

That means we also must fight for strong shareholder rights. As an investor as well as a consumer, you are part of the marketplace; you might as well be a responsible part of it. Instead of yelling that somebody else should "do something," we might want to look for things we can do ourselves. Here's one easy way.

I'm sorry the green shoots wilted, but this is not the time to give up on investing, or on improving our markets. It's time to regain our perspective on what healthy investing really should be: being a proud part-owner, enriched by profits driven by a good, honest, innovative business. Validating poor behavior and ignoring future ramifications is a ruinous mind-set.

Forget those fake plastic green shoots. It's time to concentrate on what's real.

Check back at every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

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  • Report this Comment On June 21, 2010, at 6:17 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    Agreed. People talk about "the economy" or "the government" like they are mystical actors we have no control over. Fact is, in a capitalist society, WE are the economy. In a democratic country, WE are the government.

    It's up to us to take responsibility and live within our means. No more unfunded mandates, no more foreign adventures, no more irresponsible tax cuts or equally irresponsible tax exemptions or equally irresponsible failures to raise taxes to appropriate levels. If we want the level of services worthy of the best developed nation on the planet - and we damn sure do - then we have to be willing to pay for them. And to fight for them politically. And to invest in them rationally.

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