In 2007, Americans saved a total of $57.4 billion. That same year, we spent $92.3 billion on legalized gambling.
That data, which comes from Christiansen Capital Advisors via Jason Zweig of The Wall Street Journal, says a lot.
Surprised by that imbalance?
We sure were. And while it's worrisome that we spend more on gambling than we save, it's even more troubling for another reason: We have an addiction to trying to get rich quick.
Gambling, after all, is about putting up a small amount of money in the hopes of winning a large amount of money. (We grant you that there's also an entertainment value to it.) It's a high-risk, high-reward game. Sounds a little bit like the ridiculous leverage major banks employed, both in the U.S. with Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, etc., and abroad, where banks including HSBC carried even more leverage than their U.S. counterparts.
The intersection of Wall and Main
As the savings stats suggest, Main Street Americans took on too much debt without enough cash in the bank back during those heady housing-boom years. We compounded the problem by taking unhealthy risks. We all know how that's turned out.
Thankfully, it was not all for naught. Groundbreaking new data has revealed that Americans have learned from the recent crisis and are changing their ways. We're getting smarter about saving, more conservative about the risks we take, and all in all setting up our country for a brighter financial future.
OK, that was some serious sarcasm
In reality, there is no groundbreaking new data. While U.S. savings rates are up (prompting some economists to worry about deflation), given the evidence, our guess is that that's a temporary phenomenon. Sketchy "get rich quick!" infomercials are back in full force, and speculative low-priced financial or biotech stocks such as Synovus Financial (NYSE: SNV ) , Rexahn Pharmaceuticals (AMEX: RNN ) , and Adventrx Pharmaceuticals (AMEX: ANX ) are among the most heavily traded stocks in the market.
There's also a new scheme that individual investors are trying out: currency trading.
According to Aite Group, currency trading among retail investors is on the rise. Daily trading by these -- for lack of a better word -- amateurs was expected to rise to $125 billion per day in 2009, up from $100 billion per day last year and $10 billion per day in 2001. That's a lot.
But here's our advice when it comes to retail investors and currency trading: Unless you're a professional driver on a closed course, stay away.
Who listens to us?
Yet currency trading has big-time appeal to many small-time investors. As the Journal noted recently: "Investors are typically attracted to currency trading because of the vast leverage available -- as much as 500 to 1. That allows an investor to put up just a few hundred dollars of capital to make a bet of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars."
While that is some serious upside, consider this: The vast majority of currency trades are made by hedge funds, large corporations, and central banks. In other words, your counterparty in a currency trade is likely to be someone who is -- and this is important -- vastly more qualified to make currency trades than you are. This prompted Gary Tilkin, chief executive of online firm GFT, to tell the Journal that trading currencies "is a business for speculators, not investors. It's more common to come in with $2,000 and lose than it is to turn that $2,000 into $25,000."
Your broker, however, will not tell you this. (Shocker.) The Journal notes that Citigroup (NYSE: C ) now has products to entice retail investors.
The right idea, the wrong execution
Glibness aside, individual American investors are right to be worried about the future of the dollar. That's natural given that the U.S. national debt, stimulus spending, and inflation have made the future of the U.S. greenback a page-one headline in recent months.
Furthermore, we agree that the outlook for the dollar isn't so rosy. In fact, I (Tim) recently declared that the dollar is doomed and pointed investors to Philip Morris International -- my No. 1 dollar-protection stock.
While one stock is not enough to protect you and your savings from a decline in the dollar, currency trading is not the answer, either. What you need is a diversified portfolio with exposure to a basket of currencies, as well as to commodities that will hold value even as the dollar declines. That means stocks with 100% foreign exposure such as the aforementioned Philip Morris or Ctrip.com (Nasdaq: CTRP ) , stocks with vast commodity reserves like BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP ) , and careful, measured use of low-cost currency or commodity ETFs.
That's your huckleberry
A balanced approach like that will yield protection from a declining dollar without subjecting you to the massive risks of currency trading. Even better, it will help you make money slowly over time ... which, as history has shown us time and time (and time) again, is the only way to do so sustainably.
At Motley Fool Global Gains, we specialize in finding and vetting foreign stocks to help you achieve better global balance in what we'll guess is your dollar-denominated portfolio. While Philip Morris is a solid pick, there are many more currencies and countries you need exposure to. You can see all of our research and recommendations by being our guest at the service, free for 30 days. Click here to take us up on the offer.
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This article was first published Oct. 12, 2009. It has been updated.
Brian Richards does not own shares of any companies mentioned. Tim Hanson owns shares of Philip Morris International, which is a Global Gains recommendation. Ctrip is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy. It does not stockpile bullion.