OLD Media Moves

So, are you better off?

September 6, 2012

Posted by Liz Hester

Bloomberg Insider, the political convention print publication by Bloomberg News, has an interesting opinion piece by “The Editors” (whatever that means) analyzing if the country is better off than it was four years ago.

The story (full version here) is a thoughtful and a wide-ranging depiction of the current economic state and outlines the many different factors that must be considered when thinking about the question. Topics touched on include: the state of the housing market, response to the financial crisis and government debt.

The central argument is this:

The most important answer to the “better off” question is this: Americans on the whole are better off than they would have been without the stimulus. But (yes, there’s always a but) many are worse off than they were four years ago, and that means more work needs to be done. The recovery remains weak and long-term unemployment is threatening to impair the country’s growth potential. Median household income stood at a seasonally adjusted $50,964 in June, according to economic-consulting firm Sentier Research. That’s down an inflation-adjusted 8 percent from December 2008.

The story then takes a look at several of the factors people use to gauge the economy. But one two-paragraph section on financial safety was interesting, pointing out that Dodd-Frank reform was still pending and that the six largest U.S. banks account for more of the system than before the crisis.

The New York Times’ Mark Landler and John Harwood did a similar story, agreeing that the verdict in the case is complicated:

But if Mr. Romney believes the “Are you better off?” question will be political kryptonite for President Obama, he will have to reckon with an economic scorecard that is more mixed than he and other Republicans are claiming on the campaign trail. American voters, too, have more complicated feelings about their fortunes, and those of their children, than they did when Mr. Reagan first posed the question.

The half-full argument, which the Obama campaign will promote at the Democratic convention here this week, holds that the economy is far stronger than it was at the depths of the recession in early 2009 when it was bleeding 800,000 jobs a month.

Tepid though it may be, the pace of this recovery is on a par with the aftermath of other post-World War II financial crises, like those in Asia and Latin America.

While blaming Wall Street for the nation’s troubles has been easy fodder for both Democrats and Republicans, the industry continues to dominate and many firms continue to attract more money. No matter how you feel about banks, greater consolidation likely won’t hurt too much if they’re properly regulated. But seems like that’s a big if at this point.

It’s also interesting to note that corporations are still sitting on record amounts of cash. Some of this can be blamed on political uncertainty, worries over the Euro-zone crisis and the fact that those with more marginal credit are finding it hard to get loans.

But hoarding cash means most businesses aren’t hiring, building new plants or developing new products as quickly. It also means they’re not earning anyting on that money with current rates near zero. As inflation comes back into the picture, companies are no only losing out on the opportunity to invest today, but also on potential investment ability in the future.

As for housing, it’s getting better, but not quite where it needs to be. According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, sellers’ asking prices are rising and time on the market is declining:

Not including foreclosed properties, asking prices were up 3.8% from a year earlier, Trulia said. The biggest gains were in the Southwest, which has been rebounding from the housing bust, with asking prices up by more than 24% in Phoenix.

With housing demand recovering and home construction lagging, buyers are getting impatient for fear that they have missed the bottom of the housing market, said Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist. However, sellers may be still holding off putting their homes up for sale in hopes that they can get a better price in the future as the housing market gradually climbs back.

This appears to be great news, but how strong is the recovery? The article didn’t account for the nearly impossible-to-quantify numbers of people delaying buying or selling. It looks like the asset of the past will likely continue to have some challenges.

There are some indicators that confidence is returning to the economy as well. As the Times story reported:

In July, the United States added 163,000 jobs. The economy, which contracted 6.7 percent in the first quarter of 2009, expanded 1.7 percent in the second quarter of this year. Stocks rose too: the Wilshire 5000 market index rebounded from 9,087 in January 2009 to 14,258 last month.

So, the answer to the question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” continues to be complicated. Businesses are grappling with regulatory uncertainty (potential reversal of health care being a large one), political turmoil and looming national debt coming up for renewal.

It’s no wonder that business journalists can’t figure out the answer.

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