`An Era of Diminished Aspirations'

By Lacter, Mark | THE JOURNAL RECORD, August 26, 1993 | Go to article overview

`An Era of Diminished Aspirations'


Lacter, Mark, THE JOURNAL RECORD


LOS ANGELES _ Here's how I greeted the morning one day last week:

The news shows reported the murder of athlete Michael Jordan's father back east, a carjacking in the Los Angeles area of Studio City and a variety of shootings, stabbings and robberies.

The paper had an item about cuts in government services. A freeway sign near my house was obliterated by a splash of graffiti from the night before. A driver was tailgating me and flashing his brights, even though there were lots of opportunities to pass. A homeless woman inexplicably cursed as I jogged by.

It's enough to give you pause. Do you really want to buy that new house? A new car? Will you even brave a trip to the mall? And if you answer "no," is that an economic decision or a social or political one?

Economists have long used consumer confidence surveys to gauge attitudes about present and future business conditions. The questions mostly concern prospects for jobs, incomes and big-ticket purchases. Companies and policymakers evaluate the results both for specific purposes (Should we lower prices? Should we raise interest rates?) and as a national pulse check.

The pulse has been very weak _ too weak, really, to be based on pure economic considerations. Even the most pessimistic analysts acknowledge that the economy has several things going for it, including lower interest rates and declining debt.

A homeowner who now pays $200 less per month in mortgage payments because of a refinancing can't slough off the benefits of the slow-growth economy. Nor can a shopper who needn't worry about increases in food or gasoline prices because of inflation. These are real economic gains.

And yet, the consumer confidence surveys say we remain a very glum bunch.

The University of Michigan's widely followed index, based on a sampling taken this month, dropped to its lowest level since the winter of 1992. More ominous is that the proportion of respondents who expect the economy to get worse rose from 69 percent to 80 percent.

The Conference Board consumer confidence index fell to 57.7 in July, the third straight monthly drop and the lowest reading since October, 1992.

As a prognosticator of consumer behavior, many analysts dismiss the surveys. Certainly, they're prone to short-term distortions; during the recent budget battles, a Time Magazine poll found that 67 percent still thought the middle class would pay most of the new taxes, an absurd notion that eventually will get sorted out (perhaps by April 15, 1994). …

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