A Normal Mirage

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Published : January 18th, 2012
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Category : Crisis Watch

 

 

 

 



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In "Not Flush," I suggested that "Americans had relied on what little cash they had left -- or didn't really have -- to buy what they wanted (needed?) in the run-up to the holidays."


Eight days later, we have a report out from Reuters, "US Recovery at Risk as Americans Raid Savings, Borrow Again," lending further weight to the notion that the so-called return of the consumer is only a mirage.


More than four years after the United States fell into recession, many Americans have resorted to raiding their savings to get them through the stop-start economic recovery.


In an ominous sign for America's economic growth prospects, workers are paring back contributions to college funds and growing numbers are borrowing from their retirement accounts.


Some policymakers worry that a recent spike in credit card usage could mean that people, many of whom are struggling on incomes that have lagged inflation, are taking out new debt just to meet the costs of day-to-day living.


American households "have been spending recently in a way that did not seem in line with income growth. So somehow they've been doing that through perhaps additional credit card usage," Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans said on Friday.


"If they saw future income and employment increasing strongly then that would be reasonable. But I don't see that. So I've been puzzled by this," he said.


After a few years of relative frugality, the amount of money that Americans are saving has fallen back to its lowest level since December 2007 when the recession began. The personal saving rate dipped in November to 3.5 percent, down from 5.1 percent a year earlier, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.


Jeff Fielkow, an executive vice president at a recycling company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, contributed less to retirement savings and significantly cut back on dining in restaurants and taking vacations in order to keep college savings on track for his two children. "We would love to save more," he said, "but we're doing the best we can."


Aside from that , it's hard to even comprehend how things could be seen as returning to "normal" in an economy where, as Real Time Economics writes, nearly half of the U.S lives in a household receiving government benefits:


The pool of Americans relying on government benefits rose to record highs last year as an increasing share of families tapped aid in a weak economy.


Some 48.6% of the population lived in a household receiving some type of government benefit in the second quarter of 2010, up a notch from 48.5% in the first quarter, according to Census data.


Expanding government programs combined with the worst downturn since the Great Depression have led to an explosion in the share of Americans relying on outside help. To combat prolonged economic weakness, Congress extended unemployment benefits to a record 99 weeks (up from the normal 26-weeks offered in most states). The food stamp program was tweaked so it was more generous. Americans flocked to Social Security disability, a last bastion of support for some of the long-term unemployed.


Sometimes I really do feel like I'm living in an alternative reality.


Michael J. Panzner 


 

 




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Michael J. Panzner is a 25-year veteran of the global stock, bond, and currency markets and the author of Financial Armageddon: Protecting Your Future from Four Impending Catastrophes, published by Kaplan Publishing.
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SNAFU - 1/20/2012 at 3:34 AM GMT
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