Black Friday Blues

Posted Nov. 27, 2008, at 6:54 p.m.

The phrase “Black Friday” has a double meaning today. It has become the description for the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of shoppers charge to — and charge at — stores to buy Christmas presents, or to find bargains for themselves. For many retailers, this day marks the point in the calendar year when their bottom lines begin tipping toward black with profit, the first time since the previous year’s Christmas season. It’s an oh-so-critical few weeks for retailers.

But this year, the Black Friday term also invokes a much darker meaning, one that conjures up images of stockbrokers jumping from windows in tall buildings.

One of many dilemmas the president-elect faces as he tries to prop up the crippled economy is balancing the need for Americans to spend again, while also warning them to avoid the practices that led to many personal credit crises. Last year was the first time in U.S. history that in the aggregate, Americans’ personal savings dipped into negative territory.

Sitting around the Thanksgiving table yesterday, grumpy old Uncle Fred may have lamented the passing of the good old days when Americans made things that were sold around the world.

It’s true that American products like autos, electronics and food no longer dominate the global marketplace to the degree they once did. But consumer spending has for many decades represented the bulk of the gross domestic product.

Prof. Jim McConnon, professor of economics at the University of Maine, refers to a chart from the Economic Report of the President that breaks down the GDP. In 1960, consumer spending — on durable and non-durable goods and services — made up 63.1 percent of GDP. That’s nearly two-thirds of the domestic economy.

But there is also evidence that grumpy Uncle Fred is right — the GDP has increasingly trended toward a consumer-spending reliance. Consumer spending as a percentage of GDP held steady at about 63 percent until 1980, when it began to grow. In 1990 it was 66.2 percent, in 1995 it was 67.2 percent, in 2000 it was 68.6 percent and in both 2005 and 2006 it was 70 percent.

The remainder of the economy is linked to business investment (16 percent), government spending (19 percent, a third of which is defense spending) and net exports, Prof. McConnon says. In recent years, as the trade deficit grows, the net export number has extended further into negative territory, which means any growth in the economy must be offset by more consumer spending. So that 7 percent growth in the percentage of GDP linked to consumer spending is even more significant, McConnon says.

The Bush administration has proposed an $800 billion stimulus package aimed at Main Street — not the $600 and $1,200 checks taxpayers got earlier this year, but a targeted investment to get bad mortgages and other debt off the hands of banks to they can begin loaning to consumers again. That may be the first sign that government policies are building bridges back to consumers, who hold the fate of the U.S. economy in their hands — or at least in the credit card they hold in their hands.

But at the same time, President-elect Obama must signal that consumers, whether government regulations intervene or not to save them from excess, must become more responsible. Buying $300,000 houses on annual earnings of $30,000 must end. So must spending home equity as if it is real money. Shop, but shop prudently. Gray Friday may be the best outcome.

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