Every few years, both for long-term perspective and for sheer entertainment value, the well-rounded advisor should tuck into a 20-year-old doom-and-gloom bestseller.
The decade that started in the mid-1980s offers a particularly rich seam of such tomes, beginning with The Great Depression of 1990 by one Dr. Ravi Batra (1985, with a second edition rushed into print after the Crash of ’87) and climaxing with The Great Reckoning (1991, with a new edition in 1993 because Armageddon had been inexplicably postponed) by two other guys. These books were spectacularly successful, with sales in the millions of copies.
But my very favorite – for brevity, for clarity, and because you can turn on Fox News right now and see an ad for gold that makes the exact same argument, word for word – is Bankruptcy 1995: The Coming Collapse of America and How to Stop It by one Harry E. Figgie, Jr. and Gerald J. Swanson, Ph.D. (1992).
Mr. Figgie (rhymes with “why me”) was at the time the head of an eponymous conglomerate, which at its peak owned some three dozen totally uncoordinated little companies doing about $1.3 billion in total revenue, which in those days was good enough to get you solidly into the Fortune 500. His crowning achievement was as co-chairman (with J. Peter Grace) of President Reagan’s budget commission.
The book’s argument, synopsized: the 1992 federal deficit, at $400 billion, and the national debt, at $4 trillion, were growing at hockey-stick exponents. On current trends, interest on the debt would consume all personal and corporate tax revenues in 1997. But even before that, the Fed would have to start printing money to buy increasing amounts of the federal debt, attempting to inflate the government’s way out of the deepening abyss.
Result: the world would flee Treasury debt, a firestorm of hyperinflation would then break out, and a cataclysmic depression unlike anything ever experienced would come upon the land. It would be The End of Economic Life in the United States as We Have Known it.
In the event, the current CBO estimate of the deficit for FY2016 is $534 billion, and total national debt (including money the government owes itself, in such things as the risibly named Social Security Trust Fund) recently crossed $19 trillion. As I write, the world stands cheerfully ready to purchase the 10-year Treasury note to yield 1.6%.
The S&P 500 closed out 1991, heading into the year of the book’s publication, at 417. In 1995, the year Mr. Figgie’s projections showed America rolling snake eyes, it ended at 615. It is currently over 2,000. (The dividend, not that you asked, went from $12 in 1991 to a current level of $44, and rising.)