Feeling frugal? You're not alone -- not by a long shot -- as butchers, bakers and billionaires alike are feeling the credit crisis this month in a way not experienced since at least 1946 or even 1938.
It's not just a temporary wave of Scrooginess that's to blame for a retail-sales drop of 7.4% in November and much worse expected for December. It's the combination of two tidal waves of demographics and the global business cycle combining to swamp the middle class, the wealthy and corporations as the recession enters its second year.
If the apathy you've felt at the malls or seen among friends and family is alarming, it's mostly because nothing in our experience, or even most of our parents' experience, has prepared us for a prolonged slowdown. It's almost as if you need to hear the whispers of Civil War widows, or at least see some Depression-era movies, to understand the drain of emotion and hope that has sapped the energy of the full range of the American caste system. Except for those who were already very poor coming into this period, and a few sports and entertainment elites, no one is immune.
Boomers bustedThis is largely because all of our economic texts and commentary were created from data that followed the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, which established the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency. The post-World War II era harbored the profound societal changes that accompanied the birth of 78 million baby boomers between 1946 and 1964. Recessions tended to be relatively short during the postwar years thanks to the insatiable thirst of the boomers to buy stuff.
During the real-estate slowdown of the early 1990s, many boomers were in their 30s and still in accumulation mode as they bought homes, cars and early versions of home theaters that started with VCRs. The bursting of the dot-com bubble hit the average boomers' retirement portfolios while they were in their 40s, the prime earnings years, and they were therefore able to quickly bounce back and resume the move toward bigger homes, cars and vacations from 2003 to 2007.
Things are much different this time. The median boomer came into the current downturn in his or her 50s, edging closer to retirement in a state of precarious financial health. After a 20-year buying spree, nonhousing durable-goods assets nearly tripled to $40,000 per household. Fueled by the twin forces of a declining birth cycle and the increased availability and acceptability of credit, this accumulative phase is coming to an end.
Bankers, the new villains in America now that we're tired of just blaming CEOs, deserve a lot of the blame. The repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 -- which brought down the wall separating commercial banking and investment banking -- combined with low interest rates and heightened risk appetites to feed a credit binge that caused U.S. debt-to-income ratios to go parabolic. All of this was unsustainable because it was powered by rising asset values, not income growth.
Our new economic reality -- our "frugal future," in the words of Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg -- will be marked by reduced discretionary spending, higher savings rates, asset liquidation, debt repayment and reduced accessibility to consumer credit. It will also not be buttressed by rising flanks of new consumers, because the children of the baby boomers are a smaller cohort and immigration policies are unlikely to change drastically.
The bad old daysThe dynamics of this economic future have much more in common with our distant economic past. While a typical post-WWII recession has lasted 10 months, the average length of a recession dating to the Civil War has been 18 months. And recessions spawned by credit crises have averaged 20 months.
Since the current recession began a year ago this month, we can therefore expect a slow recovery beginning late next summer at best -- but more likely in early 2010. ISI Group in New York is forecasting U.S. gross domestic product to contract 3% next year, which would be the worst calendar-year span since manufacturing crashed after World War II in 1946.
The mediocrity of the recovery would stem from the decline in household purchasing power: Falling asset values, both households and retirement portfolios, have caused household net worth to drop more than $7 trillion over the past 12 months, compared with a $2.8 trillion loss during the dot-com bust. Yeah, it's nearly 2 1/2 times worse this time. The historical relationship between net worth and disposable income has Rosenberg looking for the savings rate to rise to 4% as households rebuild their balance sheets, which ought to result in a four-alarm calamity for retailers.
Indeed, during the third quarter, nearly $30 billion in consumer debt was repaid. This is the beginning of an epic change in the way society views financial profligacy and prudence. As a result, a recovery in housing, autos and other consumer discretionary categories will be long and painful. And without some stability in the housing market, it will be difficult for the incoming Obama administration to stabilize the financial system while trying to spur enough government spending to offset the newly frugal American consumer.