Money Advice: The Business of Taking an Educated Guess

FedEx Kinko'sWhen I took on the job of being the money editor for I had no idea that all eyes were about to shift to, as we say in the parlance of journalism, my beat. Nearly a year ago I did a piece asking if the downturn in such places as Starbucks and FedEx Kinko’s was a sign of bad economic news on the horizon.

Turns out I was right. Not only were we heading into a bad economic slump, as the numbers later proved, we were already in a recession. It made sense to me. Let’s face it, a three or four dollar latte is not one of the necessities of life; in a pinch it will be one of the first luxuries to go. As for the Kinko’s of the world, well that’s always been a launching pad for the dreamers and schemers of our economy: the people who love to ask “What if?”

Well, I was in a couple of Kinkos operations in early 2008, both in Florida and California, that were deserted in the middle of a workday, that didn’t seem like a good sign to me.

In the business of taking an educated guess, it’s great to look at the numbers, the reports, the trends, and so on. But every once in a while you have to just get out on the street and see what’s happening in the lives of real people.

Private mortgage brokers were stressing out months before the mortgage meltdown became big news. I have lunch every few months with an old pal who has made a nice living in the mortgage business for years and when I saw him last January he looked more distracted than old Richard Nixon trying to juggle a roomful of “plumbers.” Same story with a couple of pals in real estate whose nails were all chewed up long before John McCain ever uttered the words “foreclosure crisis.”

The lesson for me of 2008 was that numbers can be juggled and manipulated to come out a hundred different ways. If you want to know what’s really going on down in coal mine, ask the canaries. Even when they can no longer speak, they’re the ones most likely to give you a straight answer.

—Martin Brown

Editor – Money Channel,