Journalists and others with a tendency to see glasses as half empty have a long history of pronouncing the American consumer maxed out. "Time for a New Frugality," this magazine declared in 1973. "Over the Ears in Debt," it chimed in again in 1987. It wasn't just TIME. Historian of credit Lendol Calder has assembled a long list of worried headlines through the decades: "Debt Threatens Democracy" (Harper's, 1940), "Is the Country Swamped with Debt?" (Business Week, 1949), "Never Have So Many Owed So Much" (U.S. News & World Report, 1959). And so on.
Amid all this hand-wringing, Americans have kept piling on more and more debt. The last significant episode of belt-tightening came during the recession of the early 1980s. But that turned out to be just the prelude to a quarter-century of growing profligacy, capped by a final half-decade of mostly mortgage-related fun that will go down as one of the most reckless borrowing-and-lending binges ever.
Now that particular binge has come to a crashing end, and the credit worriers believe their moment may have finally arrived. "I'm not saying we're going back to our parents' level of frugality," says David Rosenberg, North American economist at Merrill Lynch. "But what we have witnessed in the past 20 to 30 years and especially the parabolic credit growth of the last five years is going to be bursting in the next decade."
Americans simply don't have enough money to pay back the mortgage and credit-card debt they've run up. That reality is forcing banks to retrench as loans gone bad shrink their capital bases and falling house prices shrink the collateral that homeowners can borrow against. And it will presumably force chastened consumers to change their ways as well. At least that's what Rosenberg is predicting. "It's an entirely new attitude toward debt," he says. "It is the new four-letter word."
This will, if it doesn't get out of hand (as in Great Depression out of hand), be a healthy development. Currently intractable-seeming problems like the country's yawning trade deficits and its big future retirement bills would soon be reduced to a manageable size if Americans actually began spending less than they earned.
Several polls have shown that large majorities are planning to use the tax rebate coming later this year to pay off debt rather than buy new stuff. Beyond that, evidence of a major attitude change is still sparse.
"People are more aware than they were two years ago," says get-out-of-debt guru Dave Ramsey of the callers to his radio show, which airs on 350 stations around the country. "I don't know if they're doing anything about it."
Ramsey, who also has written a couple of best-selling advice books and is a regular on the new Fox Business Network, does allow himself to dream. "It's like a whole generation woke up one morning and realized that cigarettes kill you," he muses. "Maybe a whole generation will wake up and realize that collecting points on your Discover card doesn't make you rich."
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