6 January 2002 - Home Again

After nearly three years, 115 countries, and 150,000 miles, I finally crossed at the Nogales border between Mexico and Arizona, USA. Home again.

The first stop: Applebee’s Restaurant in Tucson just as it got dark for comfort food and American beer. It never tasted so good.

Traveling on American soil for the first time in three years, I was reminded of the many things Americans take for granted — roads that actually take you where you want to go, abundant water and energy supplies, working communications systems, emergency facilities, a government that respects many personal freedoms.

There’s no to fear of stumbling onto a local war or driving over a land mine. And, though I saw many spectacular sights on my journey, no place surpasses the U.S. in the diversity of its natural beauty from the stunning expanse and majesty of the Grand Canyon to the icy pockets of Alaska to the dry heat of West Texas.

Having been gone so long, I’ll need some time to get a true read on the state of the U.S. economy. But my sense as I drove through state after state is that things aren’t as bad I might have guessed from a distance.

Yes, the stock market averages are down from their peaks and the economy has slowed. But I still came across stores that were crowded with customers and malls bustling with activity. Many of our hotels were filled with people. Whether driving through downtown Salt Lake City or walking down Rodeo Drive, I got every indication people are spending.

Believe me, when economies in other parts of the world dip, the consequences are typically far more severe than anything the U.S. is going through.

Certain cities impressed me greatly. Seattle was in its infancy as a major metropolis when I was here 10 years ago. Now it seems as much a culture and economic center as almost any city in the U.S.

The biggest shock is how expensive things are in the U.S. Individuals and CEOs kept writing me all along that I would not believe the prices when I returned.

Boy, are they right!

I had the exact same medical check at the exact same place as in late 1998; the price has nearly doubled. I am amazed at prices in restaurants, dry cleaners, and at the dentist. Even a massage has increased 35 to 60 percent. My real estate taxes are up 30 percent.

I remember filling my car before I left in 1998; a gallon of diesel was around 79 cents. Today, it’s over a dollar. A box of cereal at a grocery cost me the same as a full day’s room and board in many foreign countries.

I like to peruse the real estate pages to get a sense of the market as well. Given what people are asking for homes, I think I could sell my house and retire on the profits. And since when did movies go to $10?

Of course, not every industry is doing poorly. I started a raw materials index fund before I left on my trip. Over the three years I’ve been gone it’s up 30 percent. There’s always someone making a buck, even when times are tough.

Smart investors know to hunt around for those sectors that have been beaten up or special situations that could provide an excellent return. I was saddened to learn that 50 percent of U.S. steel companies have declared bankruptcy. There are bound to be great buying opportunities there.

The dot-com shakeout didn’t bother me so much. That was more a matter of easy-come, easy-go.

My confidence in the resilience of the U.S. economy is such that I added to my stock holdings following the terrorist attacks. But some domestic economic issues give me pause for concern.

At the top of my list is the pace at which Chairman Greenspan’s Federal Reserve is printing more and more money. M2, the money-supply gauge most often cited, grew 9.5 percent from January through the second week of December 2001, according to the Federal Reserve’s weekly reports. In fact, M2 spiked to a record $164.5 billion in the week ended Sept. 17 as the Fed pumped cash into the financial system.

I also sense that protectionist sentiment may be on the rise. While many Americans have asked me about my experiences, they seem far more interested in travel tips than in what is happening in the outside world.

I turned down an invitation to attend a Renaissance Weekend — the events made famous by former president Clinton and his wife, New York Senator Hilary Clinton — for that very reason. I wanted to share my findings from close to the ground. What the weekend’s sponsors seemed to expect was the sort of presentation you might get from National Geographic.

This strikes me as myopic in this age when we need to understand the rest of the world more than ever and in an age of global markets and a world becoming more unstable.

Clearly, the government’s effort to tighten borders is important to our security and safety. The long-term effects of such efforts, however, could be detrimental to the economy. Already foreign governments are complaining about the increased restrictions on shipping and containers from abroad. As a result, prices of shipped goods are rising.

Still another worry is President Bush’s 90 percent public-approval rating with the public. How can that be bad? Because that number has nowhere to go but down.

I have no idea what will make the approvals decline, but something will.

Whatever it is will not be good for the economy or us. Remember the last president to have such a high approval rating was his father in March 1991. He was voted out of office about 19 months later.

It seems only fitting that my journey led me back to New York City, the town that has been the focus of the world’s attention these past few months. There’s a particular stretch of road on the New Jersey Turnpike where the whole of Manhattan’s skyline appears before you. As we saw it we were moved, not only by the sight of my home, but also by how the skyline has been changed.

Scarred. No one could prepare me for it.

Still, it didn’t give me the desire to batten down the hatches, locking myself up in my home for the rest of time. Rather, it was an important reminder that we are not alone in this world, as human beings or investors.

My father passed away during my trip around the world. Before he died, he told me the one thing he wished he’d done was get out and see the world like I did on this trip. He was adamant that I not interrupt the trip since he was sick. He recognized he could only benefit from a broader view of the world.

It’s an attitude we should all embrace as we move further into the new millennium.