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Keep An Eye On Your Wallet

When the war started two weeks ago, the Bush administration formed a special watch group designed to monitor the economy and make sure the nation doesn't slip back into a recession.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has been a participant in the sessions, which have been chaired by Stephen Friedman, director of the president's National Economic Council.

Other cabinet members who have been participating include Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, Treasury Secretary John Snow, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

Discussions have covered a wide variety of topics, from airline bookings to world oil supplies.

While they're watching the big picture, individuals have to keep an eye on their own expenses as well, or they may find themselves unable to pay their bills.

"I think the war is probably the biggest determinant," said financial adviser Ray Martin. "If there's a successful conclusion to this war more quickly than later, that will be the biggest influencer on the economy and hopefully things will move ahead."

The stock market has been a barometer of the events in the war and Martin expects it to be very volatile, going up and down with the latest news from the front lines.

Slow Economic Growth
The revised numbers for the fourth quarter of 2002 for economic growth came out about 1.4 percent, which is actually fairly slow growth, Martin said.

"We started the year off at a slow pace. Major investment banks, like JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch, have come out and said we think the growth rate for the first half of the year is going to be lower than we thought initially. Revising forecasts down from 2.5 percent to 1.5 percent in the third quarter. The first quarter numbers will actually come out April 25. Everybody will be watching that carefully. It looked like the growth of the economy is slowing."

Declining Consumer Confidence
Consumer confidence surveys from the University of Michigan and the Conference Board both came out at their lowest levels in over 10 years, Martin said.

Housing sales declined by 8 percent in February, and sales of existing homes declined 4.3 percent, Martin said, which is "particularly important for this watch group to watch on their dashboard because, as you know, the sale of a house kicks spending on a number of items related to consumers."

Low Interest Rates
Interest rates are at 45-year lows. For people who have mortgages or owe money, this is a great opportunity, Martin said. The problem is that consumers may not feel comfortable about spending on big-ticket items, which are the items people usually borrow for.

"Low interest rates now are probably hurting more people than they're helping," he said. "Particularly older Americans who rely on their savings and deposits and the interest income from that which in a money market now is less than one percent. There just isn't enough investment from their incomes to help meet the rising costs and expenses."

So here is what you can do with your money:

Refinance while rates are low - If you own a home and you haven't refinanced yet, you need to go do that. Also when you do refinance, get a home equity line of credit as an additional source to borrow from. Do this now while your job is not in jeopardy. That way you'll have a place to borrow as a safety net.

Pay down consumer debt – Martin said he knows a lot of people who have debt on several credit cards and cash in their bank account. "Take that cash, pay off that debt and start building up the debt," he said.

Reduce Expenses There are expenses that you can't fight like health insurance, homeowners' insurance, which is up 10 percent and fuel costs which are up 45 percent versus last year. But there are expenses that you can control. Bring your lunch to work. If you don't need a second phone line, drop that. Also reduce expenses on your investments, because your investment return, going forward, is likely to be a lot lower.