Contrary to what some of my readers and fellow writers at The Motley Fool might think, I'm actually not a negative person by nature. I actually do like to look on the bright side of things, although I think you need to appreciate the darker side as well, so you can know what you're getting yourself into before it's too late.
Yet I'm the one tapped to write about all of the bad things that could happen to us, and our portfolios, over the next 10 years.
That's OK, though, since I do believe that the process of thinking about risk is critical to making good investment decisions. As an individual investor, you can't really influence macroeconomic events, but you can learn more about them in advance and decide how to position your portfolio accordingly.
So without further ado, here are some of the biggest risks that I believe we will face over the next 10 years. I'm not saying any of them will happen, but rather that they all could happen. And certainly, it's not an exhaustive list; rather, it's one that I feel reflects certain probabilities and excludes others -- like asteroid collisions and Godzilla rampages.
Armed conflict has been a bane of humanity for longer than recorded history. War destroys property, interferes with commerce, wastes valuable resources, and often leads to shortages and inflation. And that's never good for business. And above all, people die -- people who would otherwise likely go on to be productive members of society.
The next 10 years will likely see border rivalries, civil war, and blatant grabs for resources. There is no shortage of candidate locations for armed conflict, nor a shortage of potential causes. And let's not forget the most basic impetus of war -- chronic human stupidity.
Certainly, the India-Pakistan conflict has the potential to spiral out of control into all-out war. Additionally, while China has been fairly peaceful through much of its long history, who's to say what would happen if Taiwan declared independence or an energy crisis suddenly made Russia's Siberian oil and gas fields look ripe for the taking? Likewise, it's at least possible that economic strife could lead to violent civil insurrection in countries like Russia, China, or Indonesia.
It may seem as though an overseas spat that didn't directly involve us wouldn't be a big deal, but war has a disturbing tendency to suck in participants. What's more, you don't have to own Taiwan Semiconductor
If there's any good aspect to war, it's that you pretty much know when you're in it and you know whom you're fighting -- and, generally, where the enemy is located. Not so with terrorism -- the very nature of terrorism means that it can come without warning and quickly cross borders.
That said, the economic impacts of terrorism are tricky to quantify. After all, if terrorism led inextricably to economic problems, Israel should be in some serious trouble, right? It's generally a given, though, that future terror acts will hurt big insurers like Allianz
The larger question of the impact of terrorism really depends on the nature of the target. It would most likely take city-sized devastation to really hurt the underpinnings of our economy, but any sufficiently attention-grabbing act is going to scare people, undermine their confidence, and lead to short-term disruptions. That's bad for travel, bad for retail, bad for manufacturing -- in short, bad for just about everybody outside defense and intelligence/surveillance.
Humans aren't the only ones that can deliver an unkind blow. Natural disasters are also a threat to our stocks. Just recently, Hurricane Katrina gave us a little taste of what Mother Nature can do to our economy. Imagine what would happen if an earthquake hit a major city, like San Francisco, Seattle, or Los Angeles. Or what about a tsunami hitting either coast?
By their very nature, these events are virtually impossible to predict, but many are saying we're heading for (or already in) a period of increased hurricane activity, and it could be argued that things have been a little too quiet on the earthquake and volcano front in this hemisphere. And while not strictly a natural disaster, what of global warming and its potential to harm crops, water stores, and coastal property?
Even though natural disaster does lead to rebuilding, and that's good for contractors, engineering companies, and building materials suppliers, it's not a net positive for anybody. The money spent on rebuilding has to come from somewhere else -- whether it's savings that were to have been used for other purchases, or government debt. So while Home Depot
There's no two ways about it -- America is an energy glutton. We drive ridiculously large and inefficient vehicles and then squawk like cockatiels when our precious cheap gasoline is threatened. And that's just the retail side of it -- countless companies and industries rely on oil as an energy source or raw-material input. So what would happen if the tap got turned off some time in the next decade?
The good news here is that even a total energy embargo wouldn't necessarily cripple our economy for the long haul. Not only is the country rich in coal (which can be liquefied or gasified), but also a lot of oil-derived products like gasoline and plastics can be replaced from organic sources, such as corn.
In other words, what OPEC could take away, companies like Peabody and Archer Daniels Midland
Breakdown of values
My final pick in the hit parade of risks for the next decade is the fuzziest of the bunch. Some will disagree that it's real; others will disagree that it's even a problem. But it's my column, dang it, so I'm including it!
From time to time, it seems to me that America is developing a "me wantee" attitude that, along with a profound sense of entitlement, is a little spooky. I believe that one of the fundamental underpinnings of what made this country great was the notion that if you're willing to work your rear off, you can really make a good situation for yourself. Unfortunately, it seems as though more and more people think they deserve the rewards of hard work without actually doing the work.
What does that actually mean for the economy? If people no longer want to work hard and get advanced degrees in the sciences, companies such as Pfizer
Then there are the ongoing problems with product-liability and malpractice lawsuits. People are using the courts to transfer profits away from "big, evil corporations," and we all ultimately pay for it with higher prices, less innovation, and the replacement of workers with cheaper offshore labor or mechanized systems. Remember, ours is a consumer economy, and if consumers find their pockets a bit emptier, that hurts everybody.
There isn't time or space to talk about all of the bad things that might happen. Even here, for instance, I ran out of space before talking in any depth about the impact of plague, global climate change, isolationism, and the U.S. trade imbalance.
It's not defeatist to think about what can go wrong in the future; it's smart. You can't plan for what you never even consider, so taking a little time to ponder what macro-risk factors could mean for your financial security is not a bad idea.
Still, don't get bogged down in the worries of what could happen. After all, history is riddled with dire predictions of impending doom, yet the sun kept rising and life went on. What's more, this economy has been through war, disaster, and resource shocks before and has come through just fine. The key, as always, is to hold a balanced and diversified portfolio of quality companies. Do that, and you'll find that the rest usually sorts itself out on its own.
Happy New Year! The Motley Fool takes a look in its crystal ball to bring you the future today. Click here to read more about New Year's 2016!
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).