Financial adviser vs. financial adviser. Mano a mano.
It's Steve Athanassie, president of Trademark Capital Management in Dunedin, against Harry S. Dent Jr., Tampa-based investment adviser and author of the soon-to-be-released book The Great Crash Ahead: Strategies for a World Turned Upside Down.
Last Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times talked to Dent and co-author Rodney Johnson about their predictions of financial calamity, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average crashing as much as 70 percent, Florida housing prices slumping another 30 to 35 percent, and the specter of 15 percent unemployment.
This week, Athanassie serves up a decidedly more optimistic point of view.
The year ahead will likely be rocky with political angst in Washington not helping matters, he said. But look a couple of years out — right about when Dent envisions a deflationary cycle will take hold — and Athanassie sees the stock markets up moderately, companies hiring and the return of that most elusive element of recovery: consumer confidence.
"Personally, I think in the time frame that (Dent) is saying things will be really horrible, things may actually be better than now," Athanassie said.
Dent's predictions are tethered largely to demographics: The baby boomers who created economic prosperity during their peak spending and investing years in the 1990s will, in retirement, be pulling money out of the economy.
Anthanassie doesn't dispute that boomers play an outsized role in the economy. For one, he said, they'll be working longer, preventing younger workers from moving up and likely making the new "normal" unemployment rate for a healthy economy closer to 7 percent than 4 or 5 percent.
Still, he said, other factors have set the stage for a growing economic recovery.
"Companies have trimmed a lot of fat. They're lean and mean and have tons of cash. After 2008, companies had to get their act together, and I think they have."
Based on price-to-earning comparisons and the multiples that stocks are selling for, many public companies are valued at less than what they're worth, he said, and the markets will eventually catch on.
The question is, when will consumer confidence and business confidence return? Athanassie described these as the missing leg of recovery.
"When you come out of a recession during a normal recovery, all of a sudden you have this mass rush to bring on people." This recession, he added, isn't normal. But he predicts that confidence will return eventually, though probably not until the country fixes its "leadership deficit" in Washington. "And I'm not just talking about the president, but all forms of leadership," he says.
"It's like healing a patient. Time is a factor in healing. As time passes, things will improve. Will that be 2013 or 2014? I don't know, but things will start to improve."
Athanassie cautioned that much of his forecast is based on reasonable expectations. No one knows what catastrophe will hurt our economic future or what new technology or global development will spur it on. Money managers, he said, can deal only with what's happening in the present and put their hope in the future.
"I put myself in the camp of cautious optimists," he said. "I always say, 'Don't bet against America.' "