All that hullabaloo about this Y2K thing, and in the end we get pffffft.
A lot of people were disappointed: all those reporters at the various Y2K command centers, all those journalists working the huge crowds in Paris, London and New York. My favorite moment came when
: "You're upset, aren't you?
" It smacked of a wonderful anticlimax for our image-driven century. Can't imagine a big crowd staying up all evening to watch those tense
first opening bells around the world on some financial network.
I enjoyed watching the media spin every possible Y2K computer problem into nothing, right down to the seven nuclear plants that shut down in the U.S. -- for non-Y2K-related problems, of course. What's missed is that we do live in a buggy computer world, and the fact is that New Year's, it turned out, didn't provide much more than the usual bugginess. If the media were accurate in how they covered this "event," New Year's Eve would have marked the first bug-free computer day in the U.S. since sometime in the 1930s.
The Y2K thing intrigued me, but it didn't stop me from getting on a plane. I flew back to Minnesota on Dec. 31 to celebrate New Year's with the family. Let me tell you, I looked forward to it all week. Instead of jostling with some stranger who has seven carry-on bags, I strolled through near-empty terminals. The legendary Terminal C at Newark airport had no traffic -- and the cab driver shook his head, half-wondering if the rapture had already come. I assured him that it had not. Contrary to some fears, Y2K problems were not going to repeal the laws of gravity.
Despite the outward nonchalance, I and others did start to make some modest plans in the final hours before the big moment. I did withdraw a little extra cash on Saturday afternoon from the ATM. And in the Twin Cities, grocery stores ran out of bread and water. A burst of last-minute hoarding and cash accumulation dominated the final few days of 1999 as the studied boredom with Y2K gave way to a lot of "what if" scenarios.
While we are all busy patting our backs that nothing happened, the preparatory withdrawals of cash might spark some interesting consumer activity in January. Usually the cold month is a dead time for retail, but that's not going to happen this time. People will hardly go back to redeposit that cash -- no, they're going to spend it. And the stores are already preening with discount ideas to help them along.
That burst of spending should provide another wild card for the inflation and
watchers. A burst of post-Christmas consumerism would play havoc with models that anticipate sluggish retail spending. The economy is already chugging, so will the flurry of spending be seen as a one-off event, or as an excuse for the Fed to step in and take some air out of the economy and the stock market? I would pay close attention to any Fed whisperings in the first week of the new year. With election season looming, the Fed will want to move quickly to get out of the politicians' way.
Finally, the Y2K nonevent provides an excellent illustration of how the stock market can act in a predictive manner. In early December, stock prices began zooming, much to the bewilderment of many pundits. The market, in essence, was reflecting a rapidly diminishing fear of Y2K-related problems. Cash waiting for Y2K fears had to get back to work, and the market started bounding higher. Despite all its mysteries, the stock market, with all its thousands of stocks, is a remarkably predictive beast.
Dave Kansas is editor-in-chief of TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, though he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He welcomes your feedback at