No, 2008 wasn't just a bad year. It was an awful year. A Johnstown Flood kind of year. The kind that wipes out proud, century-old institutions, decimates entire industries, and leaves everyone decidedly poorer and the world profoundly shaken in its wake.
Enough of that. On to 2009.
I have no crystal ball. But a sense of history, some basic economics, common sense and just a dash of congenital optimism leave me convinced that this one won't be all bad.
Oh, sure, there will be layoffs like we haven't seen since the Great Depression. And you can expect to see a proliferation of empty storefronts and a heap of broken businesses.
But why focus on the negative? Here are five good reasons why 2009 could, if you make the most of it, be good for your financial health.
1 This will be a good year to invest in stocks.
No one can tell you exactly when or where the market will bottom. But most business-cycle experts agree that the bottom will be found sometime this year, and that it probably won't be too far below where the market is today.
So a smart strategy will be to put some money in the market today, and keep doing it over the course of the year. If you're still shaken over massive losses from last year, this may be hard advice to swallow. But the biggest mistake you can make as an investor is to ride the market down, lose faith, pull out and miss the upturn.
Even in the Great Depression, the market bottomed out in 1932, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 41, down from a peak of 381 in 1929. By 1937, it had climbed back to a respectable 194. That didn't make investors whole. But for those who stayed in, it certainly soothed the wounds.
2 It will be a good year to invest in real estate.
This one's a bit trickier, since real-estate prices are "sticky" on the downside. Homeowners don't like to admit that the value of their pride and joy has fallen by 30%. So they'll put their house on the market at an inflated price and hope some fool will bite.
I was at a Vermont ski resort last month and noticed this oddity: Brand-new condominiums were selling at a price considerably below those of second-hand condos of roughly equal size and location. The reason? I assume it's because the resort owners have a better sense of the market's real value than the average person, still desperate to recoup a bad investment.
But here's the thing: Fixed-rate mortgages are already at historic lows, and the government is going to use every tool in its bag to get them lower over the course of the year. So if you find a piece of property you want, if the seller is willing to recognize how far the market has truly fallen, and if you have good credit -- three big ifs -- you can benefit from a once-in-a-lifetime double bonus of low prices and low interest rates.
This strategy requires some patience. Just as real-estate prices don't fall as precipitously as the stock market, they don't rise as rapidly, either. You may have to wait a decade to reap the full benefits.
3 Americans will learn to live within their means.
Around our house, the crisis is already having a salutary effect. Our teenagers suddenly seem to understand that unlimited dinners out with friends aren't a birthright, and that blue jeans don't have to carry triple-digit price tags.
Multiply that by 300 million, and you have a nation that has rediscovered that you can't spend what you don't earn. Houses are no longer ATMs, and credit cards no longer come with each day's mail.
That sudden realization, of course, is what's causing the economy to swoon. But this reckoning was inevitable, so it's best to get on with it. Let's hope these lessons last for decades.
4 President Obama will have a historic opportunity to reshape public policy.
Speaking at the Wall Street Journal's CEO conference in November, Mr. Obama's chief-of-staff-designate, Rahm Emanuel, said the words that have become his team's rallying cry for 2009: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before."
The Obama team is busily preparing a stimulus package that, when all is said and done, will total between $750 billion and $1 trillion -- far larger than any fiscal stimulus in the history of the world. And with the economy still sliding downward, it's a good bet few politicians will want to stand in the way.
That will give the new president an opportunity to do things his predecessors could only dream about. Roads will be rebuilt, schools will be refurbished, medical records will be computerized, and windmills will be constructed, all across the land.
Will some of that money be wasted? Of course. But the sums involved are so huge that there's a good chance someone, somewhere, will benefit.
5 Your (federal) taxes won't rise.
Never mind those campaign calls for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Truth is, no politician is going to push for general tax increases in the midst of a severe recession.
You may wonder: How is the government going to pay for that trillion-dollar stimulus package? Or the multitrillion-dollar bailout of financial institutions, auto companies and anyone else sideswiped by the current crisis? Or the continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or the (still) rapidly rising cost of the baby boomers' retirement?
Well, that's the sweet secret of the current crisis. While the American people are learning to live within their means, the new American government has discovered an unlimited (for now) line of credit. The United States may have led the world into this crisis, but the world now seems more than willing to lend us unlimited amounts of money to lead the way out.
This, too, is unsustainable. A reckoning will come. But that's a problem for 2010 and beyond.
In the meantime, enjoy the new year!