Who would have thought that Congress would be at loggerheads over raising its debt ceiling or that Standard & Poor's would cut the credit rating on U.S. Treasuries? On top of that, who would have then foreseen that U.S. paper would still be regarded as a global safe haven, gold would tumble and interest rates would continue to fall?
We can be thankful that more didn't go wrong with the global economy, although things could certainly go haywire next year. Here are some things that surprised me personally and professionally this year and may flummox us in the next 12 months.
1.Health care reform is on track, maybe. Despite all of the dire predictions, the Affordable Care Act, also derisively known as "Obamacare," managed to provide insurance for 2.5 million young adults in 2011, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That's a good start for an ambitious program.
But hold your applause. The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for the constitutionality of the law in 2012, particularly its mandate for the uninsured to buy coverage. Many economists say that without the mandate the plan will fail, so anything could happen. I hope it survives and Congress expands it to cover more people at a lower cost.
2. You can negotiate on big health care bills. This was a huge surprise to me this year. Due to two health emergencies, my family had some sizable out-of-pocket bills this year — more than $6,000. With a large deductible and virtually no coverage for doctor's visits and out-of-hospital tests, we asked our local hospitals for help in reducing the cost of our care. They exceeded my expectations and I was grateful.
Are health care providers more accommodating to the under-insured in the wake of the Affordable Care Act? I'm not sure, although it doesn't hurt that the HHS is using their bully pulpit to monitor health insurance premium increases. More needs to be done, of course, and there are still about 40 million American uninsured. So the Supreme Court ruling looms large.
3. Patronizing local merchants still makes sense. Don't get me wrong. I love online shopping. I can find things online that I can't find in the stores and at a competitive price. I'm a big fan of Cyber Monday. I also like the free shipping and energy efficiency of the transaction. I hate malls.
But cybershopping is soulless. It's hard to find a human being to talk to online. Yet you can still shop local and save money. My family, for example, patronizes a local cooking store and we got to know the proprietor, who did little things like recommend gifts, provide discounts and get us her cooking class schedule ahead of its publishing date. The human touch still matters, especially when merchants know your name and try to personally meet your needs. Shopping local also supports your community.
4. Financial reform can and will work. This may be the biggest surprise of all for anyone who invests. If you knew exactly what middlemen were taking from your retirement fund, you would demand that your employer switch into low-cost index funds.
If your broker-advisers had to adhere to the pro-investor fiduciary model, they will be legally compelled to act in your best interests and not sell you junk that only earns them an obese commission. Both ideas favor disclosure and investor protection and are the subject of much-overdue pending rules from the U.S. Department of Labor and Securities and Exchange Commission.
A third leg of financial reform is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which seeks to provide plain-language disclosure and protection in credit and mortgages. Wall Street and the financial services industry abhor the very idea of these new safeguards, even though they were key pieces of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law passed more than two years ago.
The money trust is pulling out all stops and has fielded an army of lobbyists to destroy these provisions. Although this law was far from perfect and will not stamp out all financial chicanery, we can be thankful that it's still struggling to be born. We need to give it an extra push. Let your congressmen know how you feel.
What's going to happen next year? Roll the dice. You can never easily predict the future, but you can sure save for it. In any case, I wish you peace, prosperity and good health.
The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
(Editing by Beth Gladstone)
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