THE BACK PAGE: Still melting after all these years
September 23, 2011
It’s been three years since The Great Meltdown of 2008, so I set out last month to see where we’re at.
First, I went back in time, to watch a cheerful, three-year-old video called The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class, which is an hour-long, pre-meltdown lecture by Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren. It’s a data-heavy PowerPoint presentation on YouTube with about 600,000 views. Hot topic, I guess.
The interesting thing Warren does is compare pre-Meltdown income and spending on consumer goods and necessities with The Wonder Years of the early 1970’s. Over that 30-plus year period, the average married couple with two kids spent everything that Mom brought to the table, stopped saving and spent another 15 percent on credit cards. Some numbers reflecting trends that are still firmly in place:
• Family income has risen since 1970 because of the entrance of women in the workforce, from about $45,000 to $65,000, but annual median income for men has actually declined $800, accounting for inflation.
• Savings went down. One-income-families were saving 11 percent per year. By 2006, savings were negative. Revolving debt rose from 1.4 percent of debt to income to 15 percent.
• Spending on clothes: Families are spending 32 percent less on clothes today than in 1970. Discount stores, the rise of casual wear, fewer suits, etc.
• Food: 18 percent less. Discounters, more pasta/less meat.
• Appliances: 52 percent less.
• Individual cars: 24 percent less than 30 years ago. People keep cars longer and repair costs are less.
Ordinary consumption costs went down for the most part. So what went up?:
• Mortgage costs rose 76 percent. Median size house only went up from 5.8 rooms to 6.1 rooms. Housing is not being built for first-time buyers anymore. People are on their third or fourth home.
• Health insurance: People with employer-sponsored health insurance now pay 74 percent more in inflation-adjusted dollars.
• Multiple cars: Families have multiple cars (two people in workforce), so overall car costs are up 52 percent.
• Child care: 100 percent; a new expense picked up by the two-income family.
• Taxes: The first dollar that the second earner earns is tax at the same rate as the last dollar of the first earner.
The “downs” are smaller, variable/flexible purchases. The necessities are much higher. All told, the single-income family in the 1970’s spent about half its income on necessities. By the early 2000’s, they were spending three-quarters of their money on must-haves. By the time they pay their five basics, they have less money than their parents.
Warren did allow there is a growing upper class; “the sorta rich,” who don‘t hit major bumps in the road with job loss and/or illness. They save, and aren’t hopelessly in debt. But they haven’t been able to carry the broader economy as a strong middle class once did.
Fast-forward to the present. Late last month, CNBC had a guest on whose theme might be called, “Turning Japanese.” As in, if the U.S. doesn’t wake up, they’ll experience a lost decade as Japan did. Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley Asia non-executive chairman and lecturer at Yale University, had a similar message. The American economy has posted an average annual growth rate of two-tenths of 1 percent for the last 14 quarters and 25 million people are either employed or underemployed (that’s 16 percent of the workforce). He thinks the economy would be better off if banks absorbed the pain with debt write-downs.
“The consumer is overly indebted, savings short and deficient on jobs,” he said. “Can we do debt forgiveness like we did in the Great Depression? That will help consumers get through the pain of deleveraging sooner rather than later. Lenders are the ones who wrote the bad loans and had the free ride. The American consumer is 71 percent of GDP; and is going nowhere. It’s a Japanese-style balance sheet correction. If we don’t address that, all the public policy aimed at fiscal and monetary stimulus is going to be pushing on a string.”
Consumers want to pay down their debt, which exploded to 130 percent of income. It has come down to 115 percent, but the norm in the last 30 years was 75 percent. “We do all these tactical things designed at a quick fix,” said Roach. “China has a five-year plan; we have a five-minute plan.”
If you’re running a gaming operation, what to make of all this? First, if it were me, I would ignore all politicians, especially as election season picks up. They are either prescribing the wrong medicine for ideological reasons or minimizing the problems. And, if a nice bottle of beer feels like consolation, until you see real evidence of falling personal debt levels and rising incomes and employment, keep on grabbing for the Sapporo.