Real Estate Collapse a Real Concern for Economy, Investors?

What does an addict do just before going into rehab? Yep, party time! Every addict. Every addiction. The closer the rehab, the wilder the parties.

Like now with America the oil addict, the debt addict. It's party time. Government cannot stop spending. Consumers can't stop buying. We're partying! Spend what's left of your savings, have a great time before you're forced to stop living high on the hog. Before rehab. Yes, we all know we'll have to cut back. Just not now. It's coming, we just want one last fling!

Yes, America's in a party mood. Spend now, load up the credit cards, forget the hangover.

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And who knows, maybe it'll be a while. Bulls predict Dow could hit 12,000 this year. Bears say hell no, it'll go below 7,500. Confusing? You bet. So you may as well flip-a-coin. On everything. Global warming? Midterm elections? Oil reserves? Lobby reform? Iranian nuclear war? Flip a coin.

Think about it. The guys with two-sided heads-up coins hold press conferences, make big claims. Within minutes the tails-only guys are on the blogs and before the cameras, counterattacking, casting doubt on the heads-only flippers, overwhelming us with data, studies, special reports, making equally outrageous claims for the tails-only message.

And it doesn't matter who gets to the cameras first. All news gets stale fast, pushed out by the new news. Consensus wanes. Confusion reins. There's no right or wrong today. Just a huge gray middle in a noisy marketing-driven world. Nothing really matters because you can challenge anything. Cast doubt. Create confusion. Control the media.

So the free-speech press is in the middle amplifying both sides of every issue, often doing no more than implanting more confusion in the investor's brain. And yes, you'd think I'm part of that problem too, just another guy adding to the confusion, right?

Wrong! When I see those "poll numbers" slowly move from 90% to 35% or visa versa over a period of time I get a sense that every voice counts, even if most are invisible. Whether you're a bull or bear, Prius or Navigator, elephant or donkey, your voice counts — it all adds up, one way or another. So any one week nobody really has a clue which way the market will flip. Back in January most bulls and bears thought this year the economy would slow. So far they're wrong.

Real estate drumbeat getting louder, stronger

Short-term, nobody knows. But take the long view and the fog begins to lift. The confusion starts to dissipate. And lately one of my long-range indicators is the press itself, in particular the drumbeat of coverage on the real estate market. The noise is sounding like thunder. Even the elite Harper's magazine has added to the cacophony by publishing this cover story: "An Illustrated Guide to the Coming Real Estate Collapse."

I might have dismissed it but the Harper's "Guide" is not alone in my increasingly bloated file of real estate articles. Fortune published a cover story titled "Real Estate Survival Guide." An article in AARP Magazine was titled "Is the Real Estate Bubble About to Burst?" BusinessWeek published a story "Mortgage Lenders: Who's Most at Risk?" CNNMoney and other are warning that "Homeowners with ARMs [adjustable rate mortgages] Face Big Bill Jumps."

Even Business 2.0 was playing the guessing game recently with an article about how speculators are exiting America's rapidly cooling domestic market to buy in hot spots such as Argentina, Vietnam and Montenegro. Yes, real estate addicts are like other addicts. They won't stop, not till forced into rehab.

Yes, there are some columns (not many lately) by bulls. Most notable is a recent piece in BusinessWeek: "Why The Bubble Won't Burst" This upbeat piece speaks in a language reminiscent of Greenspan's speculative "regional froth" theory. The article also included some fascinating predictions of rebounds for some of the biggest-bubble regions currently overwhelmed by froth. Now that's truly contrarian.

New message in old real estate cycle

The confusion reminded me of my favorite classic on the science and research of cycles. Written by Edward R. Dewey, the former chief economist in FDR's Department of Commerce. When Dewey left government he founded the Foundation for the Study of Cycles. His book, "Cycles: The Mysterious Forces the Trigger Events," is 35 years old. But in it is a fascinating chart: "The 18 1/3-Year Cycle in Real Estate Activity, 1795-1958." In eight 18.3-year cycles over 150 years, Dewey says, "the waves were too clear and too regular to be denied or ignored."

Dewey wrote that it should be reviewed yearly. But he hasn't been around to do the job since 1978. Nevertheless, that 150-year chart of real estate cycles has intrigued me since the 1970s when I worked in Morgan Stanley's real estate investment banking group. So I took a trip down memory lane and projected the 18.3-year cycle from a low point in the early '50s forward three cycles to a low point around 2007. In other words, a bottom in the real estate market is dead ahead.

Dewey's real estate cycle is also in line with economist Gary Shilling's prediction in Forbes a couple months ago: "The current housing weakness will develop into a full-scale rout ... It's clearly a bubble and is nationwide ... The house price collapse will induce a painful recession that will send U.S. stocks into a tailspin ... and weakness in the U.S. and China will spread worldwide."

Best strategy: act now, don't lose money

If Shilling's message sounds dark, the bottom line of economist Michael Hudson's "Guide to the Coming Real Estate Collapse" in Harper's is darker. Here's how he sees the future unfolding. He analyzed 20 trends: "Taken together, these factors will further shrink the 'real' economy, drive down those already declining real wages, and push our debt-ridden economy into Japan-style stagflation or worse."

It's not a pretty scenario. But, the truth is, these guys could all be wrong. Still, the drumbeat is obviously getting louder and more frequent. So my advice is simple, make darn sure your portfolio allocations are markedly conservative, towing the line with Warren Buffett's No. 1 rule of investing, "never lose money." Leave some on the table if you have to, but act now so you don't lose money.

Choose to go ultra-conservative now, on your own timetable. Before it's too late when the rest of America's 95 million investors are racing for the doors, all forced into "rehab."

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