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Markets

Coping With Oil’s Slide

The consequences of oil's plunge haven't been all negative. With gas prices down, U.S. car buyers are doing what they love best: buying big.

In my January column on the downside of easy money, I wrote that it’s impossible for the Federal Reserve (or anyone, for that matter) to manipulate a trillion-dollar economy without risking unintended consequences. Almost on cue, the price of oil plummeted, blindsiding just about everyone and setting off ripples worldwide. Energy stocks were pummeled, junk bonds (a hefty portion of which are issued by energy companies) battered, and there’s concern that economic growth may sag, both here and abroad.

Of course, the consequences of oil’s plunge haven’t been all negative (see The Pros and Cons of Cheap Oil for a look at the pros and cons). U.S. consumers are enjoying the lowest gas prices in 11 years, and Kiplinger thinks that the U.S. energy sector will land on its feet as the price of oil rebounds later this year. (Oil-producing countries that are U.S. adversaries—think Iran, Russia, Venezuela—may not fare as well.) But the fact that so many people were caught off-guard indicates that the Fed’s efforts to direct the economy may be, as I said in my column, a classic case of hubris. In fact, the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy may actually have backfired, perversely contributing to oil’s sudden price drop. As economist Ed Yardeni observes, investors desperately seeking better returns piled into high-yield bonds issued by energy companies and energy-producing countries.

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That puts the Fed in a bind. Faced with oil-induced economic jitters, the Fed isn’t expected to raise short-term rates until later this year, and then only in small increments. That means savers will continue to suffer in interest-rate hell, and bond investors are in limbo. "So what can you do to protect your bond portfolio?" asks senior associate editor Nellie Huang in her story 6 Best Bond Funds to Buy Now. "Build a mix that straddles the fence between the odd chance that rates will stay lower longer than the world anticipates and the possibility that rates will rise, albeit slowly."

To cope with uncertainty in the oil patch, we offer additional advice for investors. See 3 Energy Stocks That Pay Safe Dividends for a look at energy master limited partnerships that should do just fine. In An Energy Sector Fund Poised to Rebound, we spotlight an energy exchange-traded fund that should benefit when oil prices head back up. And columnist Kathy Kristof tells why she’s hanging on to her energy stocks.

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Big is back. There’s no uncertainty in the market for cars. Thanks to low gas prices, U.S. consumers are doing what they love best: buying big. "Trucks and SUVs account for nearly half of recent sales," writes associate editor Jessica Anderson, who compiled our annual rankings of the best values among 2015 models.

This year, even Kiplinger’s is back in the truck business. We’re presenting Best Value Awards for pickups in our online rankings, which also include sports cars and truck-based SUVs in addition to the 11 categories featured in the magazine. These aren’t your father’s behemoths. Ford’s classic F-150 has a lightweight all-aluminum body, which improves fuel economy. Midsize pickups, such as the redesigned Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, appeal to “lifestyle” buyers. As consumers gravitate to bigger models, there’s good news for the small-is-beautiful crowd, in the form of deals on sedans and green models, including the Prius. One of the hottest new categories is subcompact crossovers, such as the Audi Q3, Chevrolet Trax and Jeep Renegade.

In fact, says Jessica, the car market is being sliced into segments to suit every taste. "If you’re a tree hugger who likes luxury or a good ol’ boy who digs trucks but doesn’t need to haul a boat, there’s a vehicle that will fit you like a glove."

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