Finance Column » Your Money This Week » Econ lessons from the Cleavers

Econ lessons from the Cleavers

By Gregg Fields ·
Monday, October 25, 2010
Posted 10 am ET

The economic trends were heartening: the economy can't stop growing; the trade surplus can't be contained; housing prices defy gravity.

No, not last week's China dispatches. Rather, the idyllic, confident world of the 1950s, personified by a TV family named the Cleavers.

“If the economy does unravel in the next couple of quarters, then the costs will mount very rapidly.” -Mark Zandi, economist.

Sadly, we learned last week of the death of Barbara Billingsley, who brought June Cleaver to life. And as recent statistics show, the economic era that "Leave it to Beaver" inhabited is gone, too.

The irony is that, in some ways, America today mirrors the era of hula hoops and gas guzzlers.

Consider mortgages. A Bankrate survey pegged the 30-year fixed at 4.42 percent last week. The National Bureau of Economic Research says mortgage loan rates are the lowest since 1953, when Elvis was a truck driver.

But the Mortgage Bankers Association found home loan applications fell 10.5 percent in the week ended Oct. 15.

What gives? Another comparison with the '50s is useful. The Cleavers were a single-income family, by choice. Today, more families have a single income, but not by choice: Last week, the Labor Department reported 452,000 people signed up for unemployment.

It was 23,000 fewer than the previous week, so some saw a silver lining. That's like celebrating the calm after the storm when actually you're in the eye of a hurricane.

It was never clear what Ward Cleaver, the Beaver's dad, did for a living. But he was never concerned about losing his job. No wonder he bought in mythical Mayfield. Today's workers don't have the luxury of confidence -- not about jobs, and not about values of abodes like the Cleavers' at 211 Pine Street. Rather, they must hope the $259 billion-or-so bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- last week's federal estimate -- stabilizes things.

In essence, the low borrowing costs of the '50s -- rooted in trade surpluses and constrained federal budgets -- were an economic balm. Today, they're a bomb. Like a panicked ER doctor, the Fed deploys rate cuts like electric paddles, on a patient who continues to flat-line.

By some measures, the economy isn't as bad as it appears. Last week, the Conference Board research organization said its index of leading economic indicators ticked up 0.3 percent in September. The index gauges the nation's economic prospects, suggesting the ailing recovery is, well, still breathing. Corporate profits are surprisingly strong. Personal savings rates are up.

But unspent money is like unpumped fuel: It may have value, but it won't start your engine. If unnerved consumers don't spend, companies don't hire. Quite the opposite. Private payrolls are off by 8 million in the last three years.

Looking forward, some reports this week will provide valuable insight into what's next. On Tuesday, the Conference Board's consumer confidence survey for October comes out. With an election, a Fed meeting and the holiday shopping season approaching, it bears watching.

Later in the week, the government reports on second quarter economic growth. Economists don't seem especially optimistic. But maybe there will be a surprise on the upside.

As Beaver might say to Wally: That'd be swell.

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