Recession reflection: Is this America's Lost Decade?

What with the continued malaise over bloated unemployment figures, the slumping housing market, the Great Recession's incessant hangover and consumers avoiding retail therapy like the plague, one can't help but pose the million-dollar question (even if its value has plummeted to $76): Has America entered a "Lost Decade?"

You have to give it serious thought when earlier this month, 30,000 people showed up to receive an application for subsidized housing in Atlanta. After suffering through hours in the blazing hot sun, flare-ups broke out and chaos ensued. More than 60 people required medical attention and 20 were taken to the hospital. Lost, indeed -- and for those who fell ill, perhaps the latest loss in a string of losses.

The term recalls what happened in Japan a while back, and now, when Average Joes on the street start throwing around the comparison to Japan's Lost Decade, you have to believe the economy has landed in the toilet. With the exception of professional economists, the phrase remained obscure during the past few years, even while jobs were eliminated and home values collapsed. In fact, when President Obama in February 2009 suggested the United States might have its own "lost decade," it didn't really send folks to Wikipedia to figure out what he was talking about.

And so, a primer: Japan's Lost Decade was the economic equivalent of nuclear winter. It occurred in Japan beginning in about 1990, after the economic growth Japan took for granted in the 1980s came to an abrupt end. A combination of really high land values and very low interest rates made credit both cheap and easy, which led to massive borrowing and money invested in stocks and securities.

This led to an unsustainable bubble, and the Japanese Finance Ministry raised interest rates in late 1989. Pop went the bubble and a massive crash in the stock market followed -- a debt crisis, a crisis in the banking sector and banks being bailed out by the government.

Sounds familiar?

Unprofitable firms were propped up to keep them afloat, because as the argument went, they were too big to fail. Again, ringing any bells here?

Most of those companies were too debt-ridden and could only survive with continuing government bailouts. A wave of consolidations took place -- which is why Japan only has four national banks now. No one could borrow money, even though interest rates were officially 0% and remained at that level for years. Our own mortgage interest rates, by the way, fell again this week to yet a new all-time low. If you can qualify, you can get a 30-year fixed-rate loan for below 4.5%. Operative words: If you can qualify.

Most companies in Japan replaced their work forces with temporary workers. These non-traditional employees, who have no job security and very few benefits, make up more than a third of Japan's labor force today. Seems like we're singing the same song, doesn't it? The blues, as they say, transcends all cultures and languages.

But here's where the tune stops sounding so familiar. In Japan's Lost Decade, the impact on most lives was minimal. Unemployment was high but not at a crisis level. And the traditional Japanese cultural values of frugal living and encouraging savings helped mitigate the effect of the economy crashing. The Japanese, compared to Americans, save much, much more from their paychecks. Back in the early 1980s, the average Japanese citizen saved about 20% of their income. That number has declined considerably; in 2007, it was down to 3.3% and is now reported at closer to 2.5% to 3%.

But high savings rates sure weren't the case for us in the good old U.S.A.; Americans' savings rate dipped into negative territory in 2005. Our appetite for cars, vacations and expensive toys gobbled up our paychecks and then some. (Remember when George W. Bush encouraged us to deal with 9/11 by going shopping?) And so, we kept on spending. It's the American way.

How are we doing today? The perspective on economic health has become so skewed that in Atlanta, officials of the East Point Housing Authority declared that Subsidized Housing Swelter-thon a success. After all, nobody was arrested or seriously injured, they said. The agency wasn't even doling out actual apartments. This line of 30,000 were people hoping to get on the waiting list, that's all. There are no public housing units available at this time, but hey: Thanks for asking!

Meanwhile, unemployment claims rose last week. Jobless claims were their highest in six months. And earlier in the week, the Federal Reserve cautioned that the economic recovery would be slower than expected because people aren't spending. With diminished housing wealth and not being able to get credit, who's got money to spend? Consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the U.S. economy.

So have we entered our own Lost Decade? You tell me. And no, forgetting where you left your car in that deserted mall parking lot doesn't count.
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