Four Retirement Threats
The last time I was in Costa Rica to visit my mother, I took my aunt and uncle along with me. All three retired with a good measure of health and wealth.
But now that Mom is gone and I myself have turned 60, I often think about the other 78 million soon-to-retire Americans, many of whom may not be as fortunate.
If you -- or someone you love -- is among them, beware!
Virtually everything you thought you could count on is now subject to a series of threats that could tear apart even some of the best-made retirement plans...
Retirement Threat #1
Your Pension Fund
Could Be Broke
I hope you're not expecting a major company pension plan to see you through retirement. Because if you are, there's a good chance that much of your money -- if not most of it -- is already gone with the wind.
For decades, U.S. companies have been skimping on pension fund contributions. Most claimed their investments would make up the difference by generating truly outrageous returns. Others just shamelessly cooked the books.
As a result, major U.S. corporations now owe retirees a record $450 billion more than they can pay.
Prime examples: The pension plan at Exxon Mobil is in the red to the tune of $11.2 billion; Ford, $10.8 billion; Giant Industries, $10.1 billion; Lockheed Martin, nearly $5 billion.
And that's small compared to corporate shortfalls in post-retirement health care and other non-cash benefits: $60.9 billion at GM, $32.8 billion at Ford, $23 billion at AT&T, and $23.5 billion at Verizon Communications, just to name some of the biggest.
According to a recent study by Standard and Poor's, the deficit for these additional benefits is nearly 2.3 times greater than pension fund deficits at America's 500 largest companies. Assuming the same holds for the nation's smaller companies, the total post-employment deficit could easily be more than $1 trillion.
Bottom line: All together, US companies owe retirees nearly $1.5 trillion more than they have set aside for them.
That's ten times more than the total cost of the savings and loan catastrophe of the 1980s.
Retirement Threat #2
Medicare Is $32 Trillion in the Hole
If you think the Social Security debacle is Washington's #1 retirement nightmare, I've got news for you: Medicare is so sick, it makes Social Security look healthy by comparison
According to the annual trustees' reports on Social Security and Medicare, Medicare now owes a staggering $32.1 trillion more than it will be able to pay.
That's nearly seven times the Social Security deficit ... three times our nation's entire Gross Domestic Product and three times the national debt (now at $11.3 trillion according to the Fed's mid-year numbers).
The truth about Medicare is so disturbing -- and any solution so unreachable -- very few in Washington will even talk about it in public. In this year's mid-term election campaigns for Congress, for example, I see no one making it a pivotal issue. And at the White House -- even at the Medicare administration itself -- I see no one raising voices of alarm.
But the facts don't lie: The new Medicare prescription drug program is adding an anticipated $678 billion over the next ten years in new spending. The cost of doctor visits, medical tests, prescriptions and hospital procedures is exploding by double digits each year. High-cost, chronic illnesses like heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's are reaching epidemic levels.
Result: Either Medicare will ultimately bankrupt the U.S. Government. Or the U.S. Government will have to slash Medicare benefits to the bone.
Retirement Threat #3
Washington Is Quietly
Debauching the Dollar
With the Potomac already flowing red ink -- with the national debt already skyrocketing $1.6 billion every day of the year -- no amount of new taxes or benefit cuts could make a dent in this crisis.
Congress will sniff around the edges, cutting your payments and delaying your benefits, hoping against hope you'll believe they're really trying to fix things. But if any politician dared suggest that taxes be raised enough and benefits be cut enough to truly fix the problem, voters would tar him, feather him, and ride him out of town on a rail.
That's why they're doing what politicians always do when the government's obligations dwarf its ability to pay: They're taking the coward's way out -- debasing the value of your money so they can pay you with dollars that are worth a lot less than what they're worth today.
Your pension checks will shrink in size ... and each dollar will buy less.
Your Medicare benefits will dwindle ... and your health care costs will explode through the roof.
Worse, nearly everything else you pay for each month will soar in price, raising your cost of living and eroding the quality of your life.
Yes, I know the US Treasury, Bureau of Labor Statistics and Federal Reserve have been claiming that inflation is "under control" for years now. But it's a pathetic lie.
Since 1970, for example, while the federal government has continually claimed success in taming inflation, a dozen eggs have nearly doubled in price ... a gallon of milk is 161% more expensive ... butter costs 221% more ... monthly car payments are up 233% ... the price of a sirloin steak is up 236% ... a pound of coffee is up 246% ... and a loaf of bread is up 346%.
Worse, first class stamps are up 550% ... a gallon of gas is up 744% ... the cost of the average new home is up 992% ... heating oil is up 1,233% ... and college tuition has skyrocketed as much as a startling 1,353%!
Right now, inflation has accelerated to more than double its 1990s levels. And that's based on the government's jury-rigged numbers -- carefully massaged to make inflation appear much lower than it really is. Your actual cost of living -- what you pay for real purchases each day -- is rising far faster.
Retirement Threat #4
The Final Insult
So let's assess this situation objectively and sum it all up:
Your pension benefits: Obliterated.
Your Medicare benefits: Cut or cancelled.
Your cost of living: Through the roof!
And now, the final insult: Even the equity in your home -- the big cushion most Americans hoped to fall back on when all else failed -- is also on the chopping block.
The housing bust has barely begun, and already it's a monster. Everywhere you look, you can see the path of destruction it's leaving in its wake.
Walk around your neighborhood. Talk to your friends and relatives. Turn on the TV. Pick up any newspaper: You'll see it with your own eyes, hear it with your own ears.
From sea to shining sea, home sales are plummeting.
Millions of homes are begging for buyers, unsold.
Asking prices are falling.
Offer prices are falling even more.
I repeat: This is not merely a prediction of a future event. The U.S. housing market -- and the precious equity that millions are counting on to put kids through college ... to care for aging parents ... and to secure a comfortable retirement for themselves -- is already falling.
Suddenly, demand for new and existing single-family homes has gone from red-hot ... to cool ... to ice cold. Homes now stay on the market for two, three, even four times longer.
Suddenly, investors and speculators who were big buyers have become big sellers, dumping their properties on the market by the hundreds of thousands.
That's why, since last year, existing home sales have fallen a staggering 11.2% ... it's why sales of new homes are down 22% ... and it's why condominium developers are complaining that sales are down by as much as 89%!
Home values have already slipped 2.6% in Portland ... 3.6% in Green Bay ... 5.4% in Cleveland ... 6.7% in Buffalo ... 9.5% in Detroit ... 11.6% in Bloomington, IL ... and a stinging 12.7% in Youngstown, Ohio.
In Bethesda, Maryland, prices tumbled 16% from December to January. And in Fresno, California, the median sale price for homes was $439,000 last year. But in just 60 days, those homes have plummeted $51,000, to $388,000 -- a 11.6% collapse.
But as bad as things are for private sellers, developers are in even worse shape -- and they're giving away the farm just to get a sale.
According to David Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, a staggering 75 percent of the nation's builders and developers are offering incentives to attract buyers.
"Developers will upgrade appliances, put in a Garland range or a Sub-Zero refrigerator," says Diane Saatchi, a vice president with the Corcoran Group. "Other popular options include fancy kitchen cabinets, granite countertops and marble baths -- all free!"
A San Diego condo development, Atria, is giving away plasma TVs and $5,000 home renovation gift certificates ...
Centex, another leading homebuilder, recently offered "$30,000 off" coupons in one region and promised savings of up to $100,000 in another ...
Pulte Homes, one of the nation's biggest builders, slashed prices 10 percent on all its homes, then pays your mortgage principal and interest, hazard and property insurance, and property taxes -- for six full months!
Bottom line: Just one year ago, median U.S. home prices were surging at the rapid clip of 12.5% per year, even after adjusting for inflation.
Now, with the latest data just released a couple of weeks ago, they've fallen by a whopping 5.5%.
And that's not a single region. It's a nationwide figure encompassing millions of homes from coast to coast.
But it's just the beginning. To reverse the massive speculative boom in the home markets ... to reduce the 4.4 million unsold homes now on the market ... to clear out the hundreds of billions in mortgage debts that cannot be repaid ... a far deeper decline is unavoidable.
Your Urgent Self-Defense
First, don't count on Corporate America or Wall Street to be there for you -- now or in the future. More so than ever, you must build your own savings that you control, sheltered from the retirement dangers.
Second, unload vulnerable assets -- especially investment real estate -- and raise as much cash as possible.
Third, protect yourself from inflation. Despite temporary ups and downs, that should include investments tied to gold, energy and other natural resources.
Fourth, recognize that one single nest egg may not be the answer for all your needs. You may actually need two:
One nest egg that virtually guarantees a minimum income to cover your necessities. My favorite vehicles: Funds that invest exclusively in U.S. Treasury bills or equivalent. (Using Google, search for Treasury Only Money Market Funds.)
Another nest egg, although not guaranteed, with the goal of throwing off a lot of cash to cover your favorite extras. Use this money to aim for reliably high yields year after year.
For example, consider Enerplus (ERF), one of our favorite Canadian royalty trusts, currently yielding 9.17% at today's prices. Over the past five years, the stock has risen steadily from under $15 per share to $59 in August. In September it fell to $46. But investors who used that decline as a buying opportunity are already enjoying what could be the beginning of a nice comeback, with the stock closing at $49.50 on Friday.
Or, for some portion of your funds, you aim even higher -- for average returns of over 21% per year, enough to double your nest egg in less than four years, potentially making a huge difference in your retirement lifestyle. (See my latest report for details).
But no matter what high-yield approaches you use, never forget: The return of your money is more important than the return on your money.
Good luck and God bless!