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Today is the day each year Americans set aside to give thanks for what they have, and these are the things that we have to be grateful for in these times of economic challenge.
Household debt is way down
For the quarter-century leading up to the great recession at the start of 2008, Americans accumulated ever-larger piles of debt, both in absolute terms and relative to the size of the economy. Home mortgages were the largest portion of that, but it also included credit cards, auto loans, and student loans. The good news is that in the past three years, Americans have made remarkable progress cleaning up their balance sheets and paying down those debts. After peaking at nearly 98 percent of economic output at the start of 2009, the household debt was down to 83 percent of GDP in the spring of 2012. That represents debt reduction of $636 billion, or more than $2,000 for every man, woman and child. It should be noted that some of the decline came about because of debt being written down (such as in mortgage foreclosures), not paid off. But the simple fact is that excessive household debt played a major role getting us into this mess; we're well on our way toward fixing it.
The cost of servicing that debt is way, way down
Not only do American families owe less money than they did a few years ago, the price of maintaining that debt is much lower than it once was. In late 2007, debt service payments added up to a whopping 14 percent of disposable personal income. Now it's down to 10.7 percent, about the same as in the early 1990s. That reflects both Americans reducing their debt burdens, and ultra-low interest rate policies from the Federal Reserve that has reduced the rates paid on debts that remain. Translation: It costs Americans $403 billion less, or about $1,300 per person, to make their debt payments than it would if debt service costs were still at their 2007 ratio.
Utilities prices are falling
Americans who cook or heat their homes with natural gas are seeing big savings, thanks to falling prices for the fuel: The retail price for consumers' gas service piped into their homes is down 8.4 percent in the year ended in October. The lower wholesale price of natural gas is also pulling down electricity prices; they are off 1.2 percent over the past year.
Businesses aren't firing people
The job market has been underwhelming in the economic recovery that officially began more than three years ago, and unemployment remains high at 7.9 percent. But there is some hidden good news in the jobs numbers. While businesses aren't adding new workers at a pace that would put the hordes of unemployed back on the job very rapidly, they also aren't slashing jobs at a very rapid clip. Private employers laid off or discharged 1.62 million people in September, according to the Labor Department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover data. That may sound like a lot, but it's near the lowest level in the decade the data goes back.
Housing is dramatically more affordable
People often speak as if higher home prices are an unambiguously good thing, but that can be misleading. Sure, a retiree looking to sell off a large house and live in a small condo instead benefits from high home prices. But most everyone else is either better off when buying a home is more affordable rather than less.