Five economic trends to be thankful for

November 27, 2013

Mmmmmmm. Delicious economic trends for Thanksgiving. (Istockphoto.com photo)

It's that time of year, when families gather to eat dried-out poultry and engage in passive-aggressive sniping, or, less cynically, celebrate and give thanks for the bounties with which they have been blessed. There's been plenty of doom and gloom about the economy this year -- stagnant incomes, gaping wealth inequality, government shutdowns and sequesters. Still, beneath those numbers are some trends that should give Americans reason to think that better days are ahead. And what better week to focus on those than this one?

So, repeating a feature we did last Thanksgiving, here are the five economic trends that Americans should be thankful for this year.

1) Falling gasoline prices. Fuel price inflation is among the more damaging types of price increases. People have little choice but to pay up; in the short run, people don't have much control over how much gas they use on their commute, for example. That means that higher gasoline prices leave Americans with less money to spend on everything else.

Right now, the opposite situation holds. The average national price of a gallon of gas has fallen from $3.67 in July to $3.29 as of Tuesday, a 10 percent drop in Americans' fuel costs. Wonkblog's Brad Plumer explains the reasons here. But as Americans fan out to shopping malls this holiday season, what is beyond question is that they will have more money in their wallets than they would if gas prices had stayed at their earlier levels.

2) Fewer layoffs. The job market isn't great overall, with unemployment still high. But one key measure of the labor market has shown major progress in 2013. The number of people filing new claims for unemployment insurance benefits was a mere 316,000 last week, and over the last four weeks has averaged 332,000. That's below the 340,000 of December 2007, the month the recession began, and far, far below the high of 670,000 the last week of March 2009. No one would claim that the labor market is in a healthy place, but the simple reality is that the rate at which people are finding themselves newly jobless is back down to pre-crisis levels.

3) Home prices are rising. One of the best pieces of news for U.S. household finances over the last couple of years: higher home prices. Americans owned homes worth $18.6 trillion in the second quarter of 2013, up $2.3 trillion, or 14 percent, since the recent bottom during the first quarter of 2012. In the year that ended in September, prices rose 13.3 percent in 20 major metro areas, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index.  This translates into higher wealth levels among Americans, leaving them the confidence to spend more money. And it that fewer people are underwater on their mortgages, or owing more than their homes are worth.

4) More job openings. Hiring has been slow to rebound, but employers are increasingly reporting that they have jobs open. There were 3.91 million job openings in September, the Labor Department said in its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. That was the highest since May 2008 and returns the number of jobs available to early 2005 levels (though the population was smaller then). The story through this slow, halting jobs recovery has been about employers failing to hire; this data suggest things are starting to thaw.

5) Debt burdens keep on falling. The ratio of Americans' income going to meet debt obligations has plummeted in recent years, as consumers have both reduced debt burdens (by paying them down and in some cases defaulting) and benefited from lower interest rates. The debt service ratio was only 9.89 percent in the second quarter, hovering near an all-time low of 9.84 percent from late 2012 (the data go back to 1980). That ratio was 13.5 percent in the third quarter of 2007, before the crisis. Congratulations, America! You're making progress in getting your household debts to a more manageable level.

And all five trends are a reminder that, even, as dark as the economy has looked in recent years, there are still some happier things going on that are worth toasting.

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Brian Fung · November 27, 2013