Let the Games Begin

Olympics fever is catching on around the world with new phrases like "halfpipe," "cross" and "Flying Tomato" beginning to flavor our conversations.

But even as we're glued to our TV sets for the Winter Olympics in Torino, I say it's time to pay attention to another engaging event that we can all follow: "Let the Winter Economics Games begin!"

After all, there are so many interesting parallels between these two events that if you can follow the Olympics, you can certainly follow the Economics Games. For instance:

Both have the same motto. Citius, altius, fortius translates from the Latin to "swifter, higher, stronger." In the Winter Olympics, it's the athletes who strive to speed skate faster, to put more air under their snowboards by jumping higher and to push the bobsled with the most strength before jumping in for the ride. For the Winter Economics Games, it's the U.S. economy that must always move faster and push GDP higher, while getting stronger every year.

Both have a musical fanfare. By now, we all know the Olympics fanfare, full of timpani and horns: Dum, dum, da-dum-dum-dum dummm. … Since the U.S. economy functions because everyday people get up and go to work each morning, the Winter Economics theme song is "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland. One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, it's also full of percussion and brass. (Remember Emerson Lake and Palmer's 1977 progressive rock version? Ouch. Maybe they shouldn't have messed with the "gold standard" of fanfares.)

Both have experienced commentators. The voices of ABC's sportscasters Jim McKay and Keith Jackson from Olympics past still ring in our heads, even as we now listen to their descendents, Bob Costas and Jim Lampley, along with reporters for each sport. The primetime host for the Winter Economics is usually the chairman of the Federal Reserve along with a passel of reporters, otherwise known as economists and forecasters. This year, though, the most experienced commentator of them all is sticking around. Alan Greenspan has found a new gig speaking to private audiences of investment bankers (for a fee) and providing color commentary about what he sees in the upcoming performance in two events: interest rates and gold.

Experts love to predict what will happen. Back in December, economists turned in their prognostications for the winners in the 2006 Winter Economics Games — and as usual the U.S. economy is slated to perform brilliantly. It's so rare to read a negative word from economists polled by The Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg that it would be like a Winter Olympics sportscaster predicting that U.S. athletes won't bring home any gold medals. But not everyone thinks the U.S. economy is ready "to podium" — a number of forecasters say that the yield-curve inversion is bearish for the economy.

Both Games include unexpected reversals. It's not called the "thrill of victory, the agony of defeat" for nothing. For instance, skier Lindsey Kildow came crashing down the mountainside on a practice run earlier this week. She probably wishes the Olympics organizers hadn't changed the course after she and other World Cup skiers complained that it was too easy. In the Winter Economics Games, people get wiped out when they least expect it too. Remember how easy it was to make money just before the dotcom bubble burst? This year, skiers may want to watch out for a reversal in gold, whose price had been rising almost vertically until recently. The analysts at elliottwave.com suggested in January that gold was in the final stages of a speculative surge. In the February Elliott Wave Financial Forecast, they point out that upside momentum is waning, and the rally is extremely overbought. Taking these technical factors into account along with the completion of an Elliott wave pattern, they suggest a multi-month decline in gold prices is lurking for the unsuspecting.

Figure skating is the favorite event for both. Fed Chairman Bernanke is showing off his long program in the figure skating event before Congress this week. Those congressional judges take points off for deflation, but just like the French judge who inflated the scores of the Russian duo to help them win in 2002, they are used to price inflation. If the housing bubble deflates more quickly than expected, though, consumers won't be able to get the easy re-financing money they've been used to, and that could send the economy into a tailspin. If so, skater Bernanke will be doing a lot of crying in the "kiss-and-cry" area after his program.

Meanwhile, here are a few events slated for the Winter Economics Games:

China and Pairs Figure Skating: Just as Chinese pair skaters now dominate their Olympics event, China may end up dominating the world economy as it continues to buy U.S. debt. But China doesn't always play by the same economic rules that the rest of the world does. If it decides to stop buying our Treasury securities at a record pace, then our U.S. team economy may feel like it's been kneecapped just like Nancy Kerrigan.

Consumers on the Skeleton: Consumers are learning that it's getting harder to keep up with their credit card payments — that means that unexpected price hikes (say in energy bills) may make them feel as unprotected as an athlete in the skeleton event, heading downhill headfirst. But this is a resilient bunch of competitors, and they still may find ways to get more credit to keep up their spending all through the year.

The Markets Play Ice Hockey: Financial markets have performed shakily for more than a year now, getting woozier with less breadth. For example, 2005 was widely expected to be a winner for the Dow, based on its perfect record of gains in the fifth year of a decade. But in a stunning upset, the Dow closed down a fraction, not unlike the stunning upset at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid when the young American hockey team beat the Soviet hockey team. What's next? Could there be a power play against the financial markets this year? We will all have to tune in for the answer as this year's Economics Games grind on.

Susan C. Walker writes for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company. She has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper writer and editor, an investor relations executive and a speechwriter for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's president. She is a graduate of Stanford University.