After reading a series of articles covering the various threats to our economy, I was inspired to look for some silver linings. While I agree that you can't underestimate the economic mess we are in, the Foolish reader deserves a swig from the half-full portion of the optimism glass.
So, where exactly are these hopeful opportunities? Surprisingly, they may be right underneath your own nose.
Big savings -- Bye-bye consumption, hello production?
It only took unemployment claims jumping to a 26-year high, perpetually falling property prices, and the market erasing more than $3 trillion in retirement savings to force our country to 'fess up to our dirty little secret. We're broke!
The effects are starting to show as Americans migrate to low-cost retailers like Dollar Tree (Nasdaq: DLTR ) and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) . This gradual shift has their pricier brethren like Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF ) and Macy's (NYSE: M ) really feeling the pinch. Businesses built on unbridled consumer consumption may need to be rethought.
Does this signal the death of excess luxury and credit cards? Is it possible that the great economic crisis of 2008 will have a profound effect on the spending psychology of an entire generation? If so, where should our consumption dollars go?
Big ed -- Learning is power
My first vote goes to education. To climb out of the mountain of debt that we, as a nation, have accumulated over the past decade, we are going to have to possess the intellectual firepower necessary to capture our most productive lives. Just for perspective, China's citizens save approximately 20% of their income and still manage to contribute over 12% of their remaining income to education.
The value of learning has not been lost on investors as they have turned to the for-profit education sector in an effort to defend their portfolios. However, the recent run-up has greatly decreased the margin of safety in these stocks. In addition, Jim Chanos, a leading hedge fund bear on the sector, sees limitations on private financial aid, student defaults, and questionable value of the education received as possible headwinds for the industry.
Nevertheless, some for-profit universities like Devry (NYSE: DV ) have carved competitive markets for themselves. The company has diversified its offerings into the health care space, offering degree programs in numerous allied health careers and even boasts one of the largest medical and veterinary schools in the world.
The growing emphasis on health care is quite timely as there is a shortage of nurses and other trained medical professionals in the U.S. In fact, the situation stands to worsen in the coming years as the deluge of baby-boomers stand to put our health care system to the test.
Big med -- Secular healing
The rising demand and cost of health care, while scary, has created another opportunity for us to turn lemons into lemonade (or would that be medicine into Medicaid?). Simply fixing our health care system could stand to turn us into a richer, more stable nation. Let's look at the facts:
- Health care spending accounted for 15.2% of U.S. GDP compared to 11.4% in Switzerland, 9.7% in Canada, and 11.2% percent in France. Quite frustrating given the fact that we fall behind all three of those countries in average life expectancy by about two years.
- Health insurance is the fastest growing cost component for employers, and per the National Coalition on Health Care, barring any dramatic changes, health insurance costs are on pace to overtake corporate profits.
- "Every 30 seconds in the United States someone files for bankruptcy because of a serious health problem. In addition, half of all bankruptcy filings were partly the result of medical expenses."
- "Each year roughly 1.5 million families lose their homes to foreclosure due to unaffordable medical costs."
With that in mind, it can be argued that rebuilding a preventative, equitable, and efficient health care system is our greatest national priority. The solution will require us to view the health of the American worker as an investment rather than an expense. Think of it this way: In 1971, under the fiscal burden of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon eliminated the fixed gold standard, and our currency became backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. That "faith and credit" doesn't come from the Fed, the military, our president, or even apple pie. It really comes from you.
Remember, taxation is our government's dominant source of revenue; nevermind our stakes in American International Group (NYSE: AIG ) , Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM ) , and the majority of the U.S. banking system. So, the more able-bodied you are to work or grow a business, the more revenue Uncle Sam collects. All we ask is that Sammy intelligently redeploys our collective capital. Hence, affordable, universal health care can be viewed like the modern day Fort Knox, protecting our country's most valuable resource.
So, what is the biggest hope for our economy?
When you look at the year that was, it becomes quite clear. The biggest hope for our economy is you. Yes, you (and me). I know it sounds corny, but you, the 2006 Time Magazine Person of the Year, have some work to do, and we're all depending on you.
Whether it's by rebuilding wealth, upgrading education, or planning for the future of health care, you are going to play a major role in fixing our economy. This level of personal responsibility may seem overwhelming, but it is also extremely empowering. Remember, the majority of those "Donkey Kong" CEOs, money managers, and financial pundits have absolutely nothing on you.
The Motley Fool was founded on educating, amusing, and enriching individuals on their way to smarter investment decisions. And the smartest investment you can ever make is in yourself, because you are the best hope for this or any other economy.