We're down to the critical economic season of Christmastime. With the bagging of Saddam Hussein, we now have the chief Grinch socked away behind bars. The drama of this event could provide the psychological boost needed to make the holiday season truly jubilant.
However, a public opinion survey taken prior to Hussein's capture shows how important that event may turn out to be to America's psyche. Surprisingly, the survey shows that about twice as many Americans plan to spend less money this Christmas than those who plan to spend more. Asked if their personal finances are better right now than a year ago, more than half of the respondents said no.
Why this gloom? After all, the stock market is rising and almost all other economic indicators back the investors' optimism. Why are so many Americans still cautious about their personal finances?
Maybe it's like bouncing back from a bad hangover or a bout with the flu; the collective national pocketbook doesn't fully rebound as quickly as some might hope. The truth is that with credit-card debt among young adults being at an all-time high, and with seniors filing for bankruptcy at an unprecedented rate, it's not hard to imagine why lots of folks still cast a jaundiced eye at rosy economic statistics.
While retail reports for the Christmas season have been encouraging, many merchants are holding their breath that the early shopping-season spending frenzy will last until Dec. 25.
All of this makes the recent events in Iraq all the more critical to our national psychology.
The seemingly immovable dark shadow that has hung over the landscape since 9-11 has been the unending parade of international conflicts and threats against the United States and other nations. After witnessing the literal collapse of the symbols of American financial strength the Twin Towers in New York we seem to need more than upbeat rhetoric to reverse what feels like a downward spiral. No analysis from experts not even the august pronouncements of Alan Greenspan has yet to persuade everyone that the recessionary coast is clear.
The nabbing of Hussein provides an example of American can-do spirit. The man who has symbolized international aggression and regional instability for many years is now a common criminal locked in a cell. Earlier polls suggested many Americans never thought that would happen. Now they have visible evidence that our leaders can initiate action, promise results and deliver on them.
It looks as though the American public needs a similar slam dunk in money matters. Even though they have received a personal boost to their wallets in the form of this year's tax cuts, most people told us they see no visible evidence of fully recovered personal finances.
This could be attributable to the media's endless drumbeat of gloom and doom; its focus on the unemployment rate, which is lagging behind other leading economic indicators (although it is still minimal compared to many past recessions). Or it could be that personal debt accumulated through the irresponsible use of cheap home equity loans may now be soaring to levels many borrowers can no longer ignore. Either way, it may take the economic equivalent of a highly visible Saddam capture to finally have Americans singing "Happy Days Are Here Again."
But what can top the Dow's climb to past the 10,000 range, the GDP at 20-year record levels of growth, little or no inflation and low interest rates? The answer is nothing. No dramatic single event will reverse this financially hesitant mindset of the public. Instead, it's going to take the American people and those who report on their economic fortunes to reduce their wild expectations and realize that we already have expansion and growth.
This goes for corporate leaders as well. Wall Street's abiding thirst for ever-higher profits has severely curbed needed investments in new technology and in the American worker. In the willingness of profitable companies to keep laying off workers or, worse, export jobs overseas, and in their refusal to invest earnings in expansion and long-term research and development, we find the single greatest impediment to a realization that America is financially stronger than it thinks.
America's goal in 2004 should be to expect less from corporate earnings or government statistics, and instead to recognize that, financially, we already are close to right where we need to be. Sometimes a positive attitude can produce concrete opportunities. It's time to take the same spirit that led to the lassoing of Saddam and use it to get a grip on our corporate and individual bank accounts.
Matt Towery is chair of InsiderAdvantage, which works in conjunction with The Marketing Workshop to conduct polls for his syndicated column. He is based in Jacksonville, Fla.
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