Local experts say crisis ‘not a cause for panic’

Posted Sept. 25, 2008, at 8:56 p.m.

“Economic crisis.”

“$700 billion bailout.”

“Recession.”

The headlines coming from Wall Street and Washington are reliably gloomy these days, but Maine’s economists, bankers and investment advisers say there’s no need for people to panic — or start stuffing their money under their mattresses.

“We’re not going to return to the Great Depression,” said Charles Colgan, a public policy professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service in Portland.

Colgan said that even if a rescue package goes through, as it is expected to this weekend, the local and national economies will get worse before they get better. Mainers will have a harder time getting credit and our unemployment rate — now at 5.5 percent — likely will rise, according to the economist.

“The silver lining, if it exists, is that we go through a really slow and painful period and take the opportunity to get on a more sustainable economic footing,” Colgan said.

Economists are predicting that the national economy will be very weak through 2009 and that Maine’s will not rebound until well after that because of the scheduled closure of the Naval Air Station in Brunswick.

Nevertheless, local experts said that the “unprecedented” events on Wall Street should not have an immediate, dire effect on Maine’s economy. The state was not hugely affected by the mortgage crisis, and “community banks” — as opposed to investment banks such as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch — are in good financial shape.

“The bottom line is, Wall Street is not Main Street,” Yellow Light Breen of Bangor Savings Bank said Thursday. “There will be effects on Maine, but day to day, it’s business as usual. … We are not affected by the national crisis.”

Bankers and investment advisers do caution people to be especially careful with their finances right now as the market rides its financial roller coaster.

“Clients certainly are concerned,” John Dudley of Means Investment Co. said. “We try to provide some perspective so that their decisions are not made out of fear.”

Dudley said that if the wildly fluctuating stock market numbers weren’t linked to some famous names, this might be a “somewhat normal” bear — or declining — market.

However, when household names such as Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers go out of business, people react more emotionally and want to get out of the market, he said. But this is a perfect time to “stay the course” and remain in the market, according to the investment adviser.

“Assuming you have good-quality stocks, you’re buying quality stocks and bonds essentially on sale,” he said. “If you’re going to put all your money in a mattress, you’d worry about losing purchasing power.”

One banker urged Mainers to be extremely proactive — and prudent — about their pocketbooks.

“Now is the time to plan and get everything in order,” Matt Walsh, president of the University Credit Union, said. “Consumer debt growth is outpacing the increase of wages, year after year after year. You can only do that so long.”

Walsh said that he would stress fiscal conservatism, including:

• Creating and sticking to a budget.

• Putting money in a savings account.

• Keeping a close eye on bank accounts and spending.

“It’s not a cause for panic,” he said. “It all comes back to budgeting.”

He said the credit union has had more people come in lately to talk about their finances than in the past five years combined.

“People are genuinely concerned,” he said.

Ronnie Robertson of Holden is.

“It sucks,” he said succinctly of the economy while standing Thursday outside the Shaw’s Supermarket on Main Street in Bangor. “It’s going to affect everybody, and we’re going to end up paying for it all.”

Libby Hanley of Bangor, another shopper, agreed. She said she was watching the news with her 91-year-old grandmother when they heard about the bailout plan. It all sounded terribly familiar to her grandmother.

“She remembered the Great Depression,” Hanley said.

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