1) The plant in which my husband currently works is closing and another company is taking over. There is a possibility that he will be offered a job with this new company, but it is not definite. He has a 401K plan with around $21,000. Should we put this money in an IRA at our local bank, or should we pay off our house? we currently only owe about $22,000 on our home, with a monthly payment of $348.20. I have suggested to my husband that we save the money and invest it. He thinks we should pay off the house since he is almost 60 years of age and the new company may not hire him due to his age. What do you suggest we do with his 401k money? Thank you so much. — Mary, Brazil, Indiana
Your husband may be right. If he does not get rehired then you will need the money until he is able to start collecting social security at age 62. However, you would have saved almost $8400 in house payments by then (less the mortgage interest deduction). That represents a 20 percent annual gain on that $21,000. There is no certainty you would make that kind of return in stocks right now, and treasuries or even highly rated corporate bonds don’t pay anywhere near that. My advice is pay off the house and sit tight for the moment. And go see a financial planner.
2) Why is crude oil traded on the futures markets? It seems that the traders are like Chicken Little — The sky is always falling and the only thing on their minds is making money. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not against making money, but it seems that if it is hurting the American economy and public it is something that should be fixed. Thank You. — Howard, Browns Valley, CA
Organized futures markets like the New York Mercantile Exchange (where the oil contracts are traded) have been around for over 150 years in this country. Because of the competitive nature of their trade and the transparency of their transactions, they have become the preferred method of price discovery — so much so, that even OPEC refers to the NYMEX for price setting. However, sometimes speculation can get out of hand, just as it can in the stock market or any other marketplace. That’s when the exchange must step in and raise margin requirements. Although this is an action that is hardly ever taken, there have been instances in the past when exchanges have been forced to do this to cool speculation. If you feel that oil prices are too high because of excessive speculation then write to your representatives in Washington and tell them to pressure the NYMEX to raise margin requirements.
3) Given that the United States has a pretty stable currency and business climate, how deeply (percentage) are foreign governments, businesses, and markets invested within our stock market? Is there a foreign country(s) that could destabilize us financially and cripple our financial markets if they pulled out? — Larry, Ohio
The most recent statistics from the Federal Reserve show that foreigners own about $1.9 trillion in U.S. equities. The market capitalization of all the stocks traded on the NYSE is about $22 trillion, so foreigners own less than 10 percent of all U.S. equities (and much less when Nasdaq is included). Given the vast size of the U.S. markets (stocks and bonds), it is highly unlikely that a foreign government could destabilize the U.S. economy by dumping official holdings.
4) With history against the United States, ("Every country, empire or dynasty's rise to power, once it has peaked, has never, ever regained its position...") should I be looking at placing the majority of my investment portfolio in more secure foreign investments and currency? What is best for MY future — Chinese, Russian or Brazilian investments? — John
Emerging markets are highly volatile and lack many of the basic laws, institutions and investor protections that are commonly found in the U.S. Moreover, the dollar has really not been as weak as portrayed. Against a broad basket of currencies the dollar hit an all-time high in 2002, and has only corrected about 12 percent. However, if you want to invest overseas then you might want to focus on China and India, as well as commodity producing countries such as Canada, Australia, Brazil and Russia.
5) How can the average investor capitalize on the NASCAR phenomenon? Thanks! — Ken, Chicago
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to make money off NASCAR unless you are a vendor to its events. NASCAR is a privately owned company and big corporations are throwing huge amounts of money at it in the hopes of making a return. Right now the only one making big money is the France family, who owns it. Maybe one day there will be an IPO and it will be the next Google. However, until then there doesn’t appear to be any easy way to cash in, so just sit back and watch the races.
Mike Norman is the founder and publisher of the Economic Contrarian Update and a frequent guest on the Business Block.