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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Meeting About the Poor Prompts Prayers for the Rich

There's no small irony in the coincidence that at the same time a couple of weeks ago when leaders of the Anglican Communion gathered in Boksburg, South Africa, for a conference on the problems of world poverty and development, Forbes magazine published its annual list of the world's richest people.

The Forbes list counts people who hold assets of $1 billion or more each; there are 946 of them with an aggregate total of $3.5 trillion. The magazine cites them by name, country of residence, the amounts of their wealth and its main source (business, inheritance, investments). In contrast, the people who are the subjects of the church leaders' meeting in South Africa are too numerous to identify individually. They have almost no countable financial assets.

At the same time, another irony struck me the other Sunday as I was sitting in church. We pray fervently at every church service for these latter multitudes: "the poor, the destitute, the hungry, prisoners and captives"; and quite rightly so. We also pray for "those in authority", but that phrase is intended to mean civil authority, not those in commercial or financial authority, who in fact are conspicuous by their absence from these petitions.

But it's just those business and financial leaders who through their management skill or investment acumen can generate the wherewithal to address the problems of the poor, give gainful employment to the rest of us and provide funding for governments and churches. The temporal leaders of the world have tremendous responsibilities of stewardship. A lot of the welfare of society rests on them. Just the same, despite their own fortunes and their worldly power, they are only human and they need prayer too. Or perhaps, because of their fortunes and their power, do they need prayer!

Here are two prayers by a business leader, which might give you some insights so you can fashion your own intercessions on their behalf:
Prayer for the Ambitious

Blessed are those who are hungry for success;
(Pardon the pragmatic beatitude)
But You've a track record of being a booster of folks hungry for success,
At lease those who define success as Salvation.

Bless us abundantly, too, who crave temporal success,
A flimsy foretaste, perhaps, of our ultimate triumph.

Bless, us, Good God, and our earthly ambitions,
Giving us the courage and wisdom we need
To be able to recognize the difference
Between ambition – and just plain greed.
Prayer before a Vacation

I'm supposed to rest and relax –
That's the point of a vacation, isn't it?
Well, since You are and always will be
My Refuge and My Strength,
Please see to it that,
During this two week refuge of mine,
In my basking and relaxing
I am also able to forget.
I want to forget the office pettinesses and grousing,
The posturing and the hassling
That make vacations so necessary, so welcome.

Let me forget temporarily – or even better, forever –
The language of today's commerce, so frightening,
So cataclysmic – "pinpoint strategy,"
"frontal assault," "blitz campaign";
So that when I return to the office
It may be with a refreshed spirit,
A stronger purpose, a softer vocabulary –
And – of course, a terrific tan. Amen.

These are from a little book, Pinstripe Prayers, by John Chervokas*. Originally published by Seabury in 1984, the book is no longer in print, but can easily be located at used book dealers through an Internet search. It is full of these slightly irreverent but most discerning observations on running a business. One is a "Prayer before Firing Someone", another "A Prayer While Working Late". Chervokas prays about a difficult boss, the office cleaning lady and the man who shines his shoes. Every-business-day needs these, but crucial, as the work these managers do and the decisions they make filter down through the company structure to those who actually produce and deliver products.

Similarly must we pray for those with so much money they can move mountains, in the hope that they will make decisions enabling the greater welfare of the millions who try to move molehills in the far reaches of Africa, Asia, Latin America and all those small cities in south Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alabama and elsewhere in this country, in which more than 20% of the people exist below the poverty line.

*Mr. Chervokas is presently the supervisor of the Town of Ossining, New York, but he had a long career in advertising. He is the originator of the world's most famous grocer, Mr. Whipple, and "Please don't squeeze the Charmin!"

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What's Happening in the Stock Market?

We have been working on nice posts for this blog on the latest list from Forbes Magazine of the world's richest people and on the impact of taxes in our lives. But in the meantime, daily developments in financial markets are getting way ahead of us, and the business economist in our blood says, "Carol, you have to say something to them about these stock prices."

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 242.66 points today, March 13, a one-day decline of 2% to close at 12075.96. In the recent decline, the worst single day was February 27, when this widely watched 30-stock bellwether fell 416.02 points or 3.3%. The recent peak was 12,786.64 on February 20. As of this afternoon's close, the index is off 5.6% from that February 20 peak.

Numerous factors have played a role in the downturn, some of which we have talked about here as long ago as last summer. We talked about how little consumers (that's us!) are saving and how big some people's debt loads are. Some of that is coming home to roost. The Mortgage Bankers Association, a national industry group, reported today that almost 5% of home mortgages were delinquent at the end of 2006, meaning the homeowner was at least 30 days behind in making payments. A record 0.54% of mortgages entered foreclosure during the fourth quarter. The payment performance on loans of all quality types worsened, but was especially bad for FHA mortgages, up from 12.8% delinquent on September 30 to 13.46% on December 31. Delinquencies on so-called "sub-prime" mortgages, which are loans to people whose credit is substandard to begin with, came to 13.33% in December, up from 12.56% just three months before. People who have adjustable rate mortgages, regardless of their credit quality, are having a harder time as interest rates moved up in general last year, raising their mortgage payments significantly. This is tough for them to manage in the face of high fuel costs too.

In that regard, the US Commerce Department reported today that consumers' purchases at retail stores moderated in February, just barely inching ahead from January, and they declined outright when gas stations' sales are excluded.

Some international markets have also been shaky, as that first big down day for the Dow Jones February 27 came on the heels of a shake-out the night before in the Chinese market. China's economy continues to expand rapidly, but its government is known to want to restrain its growth and potential inflation, making investors nervous.

We're not political scientists, but we'd surmise that uncertainty in the US government is making US investors nervous too. The resignation of a top aide in the Justice Department adds to a list of other political concerns.

Fortunately, our job here at Ways of the World is not to tell you how or when these market conditions will all be straightened out. What we do know is that aside from the housing and mortgage situation, the underlying economy has been holding in fairly well in recent months. Jobs have continued to increase, albeit modestly, and unemployment has remained low. Inflation in the US has stayed remarkably steady, so that those high energy costs don't seem to have worked their way into prices of other goods and services. Growth is continuing in Europe and among our other major trading partners. Today's Wall Street Journal calls our attention to the boom in Russia, which, as an oil producer, is benefiting from high oil prices, and their consumers are spending. Still, there's plenty of risk, economic and political, in many parts of the world, and risk makes us all nervous. Stay tuned, then, and perhaps the best response you can make to nervous markets is to put your tax refund in your savings account or use it to pay down some credit card debt.

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