The future is now

Posted: Thursday, July 19, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- The change has been momentous, but it arrived so subtly that even those involved haven't stopped to think about how it has changed their financial perspective.

Just a couple of years ago America had its eyes focused on the future, which in most cases would be increasingly bright, with mutual funds rising and 401(k)s accumulating significant retirement funds.

The present, it was thought, would take care of itself. Since jobs were plentiful and inflation low, you could spend your money on electronic gadgets and blow a day's pay at the theme park instead of saving it. The wealth effect, the sense of well-being, was like magic.

It's all reversed now, and you can spot the change through all levels of the economy. People are worrying about jobs. Their shrunken 401(k)s have to be nursed. There's anger out there at mutual fund managers.

You can read about it in a host of economic statistics. Retail sales aren't what they should be. After record years of car sales, automakers are reporting big income losses. Vacation spending is off.

The entire notion that the present will take care of itself has been tipped on its head.

Now, you have to protect the present, cutting out foolish spending and investments. It stares you in the face, while the future is so distant it's out of focus -- and may not be there if you don't tend to the present.

To avoid the pain of looking too deeply into the present state of our financial affairs we can look at the problems affecting a group to which few of us belong. That would be the wealthiest of all Americans.

Their concerns are not irrelevant. Aside from their great wealth, they are not so different from you and I. It's mainly that their wealthier.

For the first time in nine years of surveying, U.S. Trust reports, ''the nation's most affluent individuals are as concerned about their stock market returns as they are about the next generation's financial future.''

In short, and as it probably is with you, too many present problems occupy the 1 percent wealthiest Americans, even with their adjusted gross incomes of at least $300,000 a year or net worth greater than $3 million.

While they are not panicking, same as you, we are assured by U.S. Trust, which manages $91 billion of the wealthiests' assets, a prolonged market slump would change their spending patterns.

In fact, they even conceded that such events could even result in ''generating a reverse wealth effect.''

More than half said they would postpone improvements to their homes, and nearly half said they'd cut back on such big-ticket items as furniture, electronics and expensive clothing.

Many others said they'd postpone the purchase of a new car or boat. One-third went further: They'd go out less for dining and entertainment and maybe postpone vacation plans.

While such considerations might not be sufficient to adversely affect their health, as it might for financially lesser types, you can see that the rich worry too. In that sense, they are one with you.

The similarity might go even further. Most affluent Americans told U.S. Trust that the government should take steps to stimulate the economy, led by lowering interest rates and cutting taxes, both popular with other Americans.

Yes, the very rich are concerned with the future -- they're concerned that their kids will have a tougher time financially than they did -- but not, for this year at least, at the expense of ignoring present problems.

Very much like the rest of us.

End Adv PMs Thursday, July 19.

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