A recent Pew poll found that 21% of Americans planned to grow their own vegetables, 16% had held a garage sale or sold things online and 10% had either taken in a friend or relative or moved in with one. Pundits are coining phrases such as “austerity chic” and “luxury shame”. Four-fifths of Americans told the BCG they would defer big purchases that can wait.
The beneficiaries of the new parsimony are, unsurprisingly, firms that offer low prices. The only two stocks on the Dow Jones Industrial Average that rose in 2008 were Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.
The hangover from this party will be long and painful. Households’ total outstanding borrowing fell in the fourth quarter of 2008, for the first time since the second world war. The personal-saving rate rose to 4.2% in the first quarter of 2009, from a nadir of minus 0.7% in 2005. “It is easy to see how consumer deleveraging could result in hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of forgone consumption in coming years,” say Martin Baily, Susan Lund and Charles Atkins of the McKinsey Global Institute.
American consumers are burdened by far too much consumer debt. And spending on non-essentials with debt is un-wise and creates personal risks and a weak (fundamentally) economy. It is true the current economic data will look good when people spend money they don’t have. But it just creates a huge burden for the future economy to cope with.
Consumer borrowing falls in March at fastest pace in over 18 years, Americans saving more
In dollar terms, consumer borrowing plunged by $11.1 billion. That’s the largest dollar amount on records dating to 1943, and more than three times the $3.5 billion drop that economists expected. The borrowing category that includes credit cards dropped 6.8 percent in March after a 12.1 percent plunge in February. The category that includes auto loans fell 4.2 percent after rising by 1.2 percent in February.
The Commerce Department last week said that the personal savings rate edged up to 4.2 percent in March, marking the first time in a decade that the savings rate has been above 4 percent for three straight months.
Good. Consumer debt is far to large and should be paid down. This is a start but a small start, but a much larger reduction in outstanding consumer debt is needed before we have reached a healthy level of debt. The continued improvement in that debt level signifies a stronger economy. Far too many financial journalists instead of pointing out the benefits of such improvement note that this reduces current consumption (and thus, effectively, will lower current GDP – compared to what it would be if we continued to spend beyond our means). You cannot spend money your don’t have forever.
Having more stuff in your house (along with an increased outstanding credit card balance) does not make you economically more successful. And the same holds true for the economy. Having more stuff sitting in people’s house and an increasing debt load is not the sign of a stronger economy (even if it is a route to a higher current GDP). Increased saving and reducing debt will strengthen the economy and improve our economic success over the long term.
Related: Will Americans Actually Save and Worsen the Recession? – Proper credit card use – Personal Saving and Personal Debt in the USA – Americans are Drowning in Debt – Buying Stuff to Feel Powerful
The economy has structural problems. The solution at this time is not to convince people that everything is fine and just go spend money you don’t have. Personal debt is much to high. The practices that allowed huge anti-competitive and economy endangering institutions to threaten the economy have not been addressed. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been given to those who caused the credit crisis. Making the federal debt problem even worse.
Some suggest we need to regain consumer confidence. Unfortunately that fixes nothing. That “strategy” is just to convince people problems don’t exist and buying what you can’t afford is fine. Just convince people to go spend more money, run up their credit card debt, borrow against their house, as long as everyone believes it can continue. That can work for awhile but it then fails due to structural issues. And the solution becomes more and more difficult the longer such a strategy is used. The same way a ponzi scheme eventually implodes.
If you could convince those in a ponzi scheme (and new investors) that they should just be optimistic it can continue. But eventually people ask for their money to buy something and none exists and the scheme fails.
With an economy, after structural problems are addressed then you need to convince people to be less fearful and to be more optimistic. Because often by that time people have become so fearful that they are not taking even reasonable steps. They don’t buy even though they have the money in the bank and have a real need for the purchase. When this happens, convincing people that the economy is stable is important. However, cheerleading and convincing people to just continue to run up their debts to spend more is not wise when the economy is already far to in debt is not wise (though it is politically expedient).
The USA needs to stop living beyond its means. That is the most important factor to long term economic strength. But the focus doesn’t seem to be on doing this, instead it seems to be on printing money to paper over the problems. There are many great strengths of the economy and those have allowed huge federal deficits, huge personal debt, monopolistic practices, destabilizing financial risks taking… Even with that things have been quite good. But those areas need to be addressed over the long term.
I think this article stretches pretty far to try and find a silver lining but these days it is hard to find anything positive: A silver lining to the economic crisis? by James Melik
“People are trying to understand that we are all in this together, not just in an idealistic, altruistic way, but in a practical way,” he says. He is also concerned about how future generations will look after the environment. “We are stewards of fragile resources,” he says.
“That conversion to a green economy is more than structural, it is also spiritual and that is the chance this crisis offers us,” he says.
We certainly do need people to be more financially responsible in their spending habits. Poor spending habits have been a problem for quite some time, the poor economy just is now focusing more people on those bad habits.
That sounds nice I believe however, it is fairly irrelevant. Economic demand is what is down, not production capacity. We are “no less productive than when this crisis began.” Ok, that is probably true. So what. That implies that the crisis has something to do with productivity. If we say the color of our eyes is the same as when the crisis began it is obvious that is a non-sequitur. Well so is the quote by the new President, though that is less obvious.
Our demand was definitely over stimulated using massive federal government budget deficits, massive trade deficits, massive amounts of consumer debt, massive amounts of unjustified mortgage debt and massive amounts of leverage. None of those things has anything to do with capacity in the implied sense – capacity to produce. They have to do with the capacity to consume. And while our capacity to consume has not declined. The funding that allows that consumption (foreign lending, high leverage, junk mortgages…) has decreased.
This is good news. People need to stop spending money they don’t have. I understand perfectly well this means that spending will go down (which will likely lead to reduced economic output – though technically it doesn’t have to, a reduction in imported goods could more than offset the reduced spending and GDP would not decline). Living beyond your means is not a good thing. We should hope that consumer debt continues to decrease. If that means we have some suffering today to pay for living beyond our means for years the “fix” is not to continue to live beyond our means. The “fix” is to accept the consequences of past behavior and build a more sustainable economy now for the future.
Ideally this decrease can be someone gradual, abrupt changes in the economy often cause problems, but far too many economists and policy makers only care about today and the next 6 months. They have been living this way for decades. And it is not sustainable. Consumer debt levels in the USA are far too high. The UK has an even worse personal debt problem. They should come down. Reducing those levels is good for the individuals involved (they gain most of the benefit) and also for the health of the economy (though it does decrease the current economy a bit while making the foundation for future economy much stronger).
I don’t believe you should carry credit card debt at all. See my tips on using credit cards effectively. And you should have an emergency fund to pay at least 6 months of expenses to tap before using credit card debt. But if you do have debt and you are in such a bad personal financial situation where you will not be able to pay back what you have borrowed this might be useful information: Credit Card Companies Willing to Deal Over Debt
So lenders and their collectors are rushing to round up what money they can before things get worse, even if that means forgiving part of some borrowers’ debts. Increasingly, they are stretching out payments and accepting dimes, if not pennies, on the dollar as payment in full.
Lenders are not being charitable. They are simply trying to protect themselves. Banks and card companies are bracing for a wave of defaults on credit card debt in early 2009, and they are vying with each other to get paid first.
Card companies will offer loan modifications only to people who meet certain criteria. Most customers must be delinquent for 90 days or longer. Other considerations include the borrower’s income, existing bank relationships and a credit record that suggests missing a payment is an exception rather than the rule.
While a deal may help avoid credit card cancellation or bankruptcy, it will also lead to a sharp drop in the borrower’s credit score for as long as seven years, making it far more difficult and expensive to obtain new loans. The average consumer’s score will fall 70 to 130 points, on a scale where the strongest borrowers register 700 or more.
This is only an option to minimize a big mistake that results in you finding your self in a very bad situation. The credit card companies are not charities or known for giving away money. They are only going to do this when they figure they won’t get the full amount they are owed and figure getting some is the best they can hope for.
US, French and British officials puzzle over Germany’s refusal to tackle the recession head-on. German leaders, meanwhile, cannot see why their taxpayers’ money should go into encouraging precisely the kind of behaviour – reckless lending, careless borrowing and overconsumption – that precipitated the financial crisis.
I am with the Germans on this one. The people that want to find some more credit cards to run up don’t understand the problem. Until they come up with strong policies that admit we have been living beyond our means for decades and have to pay for this at some point and fashion a policy based on that understanding we are in danger. Yes another credit card can allow you to continue to live beyond your means, but it also puts you into even worse financial shape than you have already gotten yourself into. It is not a solution, it is an emergency to deal with the complete failure of yourself previously and without a plan to change it is just setting yourself up for a worse situation soon.
Continuation of: USA Manufacturing is Healthy
The real problem with the USA economy is that a country cannot live beyond its means forever. Those living in USA have consumed far more than they have produced for decades. That is not sustainable. The living beyond our means is mainly due to massively increased consumption, not shrinking output (in manufacturing or service). One, of many examples, of the increased consumption is average square footage of single-family homes in the USA: 1950 – 983; 1970 – 1,500; 1990 – 2,080; 2004 – 2,349.
In case it isn’t totally obvious to you. You don’t fix this problem by encouraging more spending and borrowing: either by the government or by consumers. The long term problem for the USA economy is that people have consuming more than they have been producing. Personally, as this continues you reach a point where getting another credit card does not work. The same holds true for the collective health of a country. A country cannot solve the problem of having bills come due from decades of living beyond its means by charging more so that they can continue to live beyond their means.
Where the USA is in the continuum, is hard for me to judge. For the sack of illustration, lets say a consumer can get to 10 cards before they finally fail. If the consumer reaches the limit on 2 credit cards they have the choice to continue to the party by getting another credit card. Or they have the choice of addressing the situation they have gotten themselves into. If they decide to become responsible they have a challenge but one they can endure with some hardships.
If they press on to 5 credit cards and then max them out they come to the same decision. Dig themselves deeper in debt to avoid the problem today or live up their past behavior and become responsible. The work they have ahead of themselves is much more challenging than if they had started working on the problem when they only had 2 cards.
If they press on to 9 cards and now have the decision again. The effort to find a solution may be almost impossible. Borrow more to pay for past mistakes while maintaining some expenditures may be possible (but they will have to live on less than they earn). By the time you are this far down the failed path you have so much going to pay for your past bills you can’t spend even close to what you currently earn on current expenses. Letting yourself get to this point is very bad. And most likely as a person you will go bankrupt.
For me, giving back to others is part of my personal financial plan. As I have said most people that are actually able to read this are financially much better off than billions of other people today. At least they have the potential to be if they don’t chose to live beyond their means. Here are some of the ways I give back to others.
Kiva is a wonderful organization and particularly well suited to discuss because they do a great job of using the internet to make the experience rewarding for people looking to help – as I have mentioned before: Using Capitalism to Make a Better World. One of my goals for this blog is to increase the number of readers participating in Kiva – see current Curious Cat Kivans. I have also created a lending team on Kiva. Kiva added a feature that allows people to connect online. When you make a loan you may link you loan to a group.
I actually give more to Trickle Up (even though I write about Kiva much more). I have been giving to them for a long time. They appeal to my same desire to help people help themselves. I believe in the power of capitalism and people to provide long term increases in standards of living. I love the idea of providing support that grows over time. I like investing and reaping the rewards myself later (with investment I make for myself). But I also like to do that with my gifts. I would like to be able to provide opportunities to many people and have many of them take advantage of that to build a better life for themselves, their families and their children.
The photo shows Frew Wube, Haimanot and Melkan (brother and two sisters), an entrepreneur that received a grant from Trickle up. Trickle Up provides grants to entrepreneur, similar to micro loans, except the entrepreneur does not have to pay back the grant. They are able to use the full funds to invest in their business and use all the income they are able to generate to increase their standard of living and re-invest in the business.
“I also save every month,” says Frew, who has over $40 stored in a cooperative savings fund. The capital he has saved with other people in his group is used to provide loans to group members at a low interest rate. Frew, now able to access credit thanks to his Trickle Up clothing business, has taken progressively larger loans from the group, including his latest loan of $300 to start a candle business.