smart spending

Bidding 'adieu' to weird financial 2009

Jay MacDonald Let's step back for a moment from the precipice of the new year to savor the financial weirdness that was 2009.

At this time last year, we had narrowly averted econo-clypse when our government deemed it imperative to bail out Wall Street for various sorts of bad behavior the Street promised to discontinue really soon.

For the average lunch-toter, the Wall Street meltdown was way too vague, way too remote and contained far too many scary zeros to truly process.

“Adieu, pirates, zombies and Ponzis. Fare-thee-well, nonflying balloon boy!”

But two months later, when bailout bucks were extended to General Motors, it became clear that we'd been collectively strapped into the backseat of a speeding Eldorado and the next million fill-ups would be on us.

By the time Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States No. 44, his campaign promise of hope and change had acquired real gravitas. We just hoped the change would come before most of Main Street dried up and blew away.

In February, the president signed the historic $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka "the stimulus bill," with its promise to jump-start our stalled economic engine and create/preserve 3.5 million jobs.

Shortly thereafter, former Nasdaq chairman Bernard Madoff, described by Forbes as "a schlub and a Narcissist," seized the crown as king of the Ponzi scheme when he pled guilty to 11 felony counts of bilking his clients of billions of dollars.

Bernie's in the big house now -- and not the one in the Hamptons.

Year of the zombie

Spring brought a flood of piquant new pop culture images that seemed to comment on our collective financial anxiety.

On the high seas, Somali pirates hijacked large corporate freighters, unleashing a boatload of pirate lingo on the blogosphere.

Then there were zombies. Everywhere, zombies. Computer geeks hacked into electronic road signs in Austin, Texas, to warn motorists, "Caution: Zombies ahead!!!" A playful rewrite of Jane Austen titled "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" became a publishing phenomenon. And the camp Woody Harrelson movie "Zombieland" became a surprise box office hit. 

Psychologists would no doubt have a field day with the Freudian implications of the zombie phenomenon. My take? The undead are straightforward and their intentions easily recognized compared to the financial players who were spending our grandchildren's futures with impunity.

You could almost picture Barney Frank and Elizabeth Warren, weapons drawn, defending the farmhouse from flesh-eating Harvard M.B.A.s.

What's that smell?

Throughout the fall, the stock market rallied like it was 1999, further baffling a nation in the grips of 10 percent unemployment.

Should stocks go up when employment goes down? Should a young boy command media attention for not being swept away in a balloon? Um, not really.

Some attribute the suddenly bullish market to a "melt-up" in which the investor herd smelled ungrazed-upon profits and stampeded in that direction. And in the pasture, we know what generally follows grazing.

Adieu, pirates, zombies and Ponzis. Fare-thee-well, nonflying balloon boy!

I can't wait for the first whiff of weirdness in 2010.

Veteran Bankrate contributing editor Jay MacDonald lives in Clearwater, Fla. If you have a comment or suggestion about this column, write to Bank Shots.

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