The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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November 22, 2012

Five economic trends to be thankful for

There is a dirty little secret about economics writing. The thing that offers the surest path to glory to front page play for a story, to lots of Web traffic, to a pat on the back from editors is doom and gloom. When we can point out something that is awful, whether it is a collapsing job market or rising poverty or skyrocketing gasoline prices, the world seems a whole lot more interested in what we have to say. It's not for nothing they call economics the dismal science.

But Thursday is the day each year Americans set aside to give thanks for what they have, to bask in the good around them. So for Thanksgiving, this economics writer decided to cast aside the usual practice, fire up FRED (a database of economic statistics maintained by the St. Louis Fed), and keep looking until I found five trends that are unambiguously positive.

This is what I found; these are the things that Americans 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 loan debt. 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.

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