Never in modern memory have Americans been so gloomy about their future. A record 90% of registered voters say the country is seriously off on the wrong track, according to the most recent ABC News poll. A long economic slump lasting well into 2009 looks likely (see What's Next For the Economy? (opens in new tab)).
But take heart. The editors of Kiplinger's Personal Finance and Kiplinger's forecasting came up with ten things going right these days. See if you agree:
1.Oil Loses Its Swagger: With the U.S. and global economy hurting, oil prices have dropped more than 50% in just three months, from $147 a barrel in July to the $65-70 range. Remember $80-$100 fill-ups at the pump? The national average for a gallon of gasoline is below $3.00 again, from $4.11 in March, and should stay below $3.50 through next year. Prices for home heating oil and natural gas are also headed lower this winter than last.
2. A Tipping Point for the Auto Industry: After years of talk and false starts, finally, all the major carmakers are furiously developing hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles that could lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Meanwhile, desperate dealers are offering unheard-of incentives on new, gas-fired models. For example, Toyota is offering $1,000 cash back and 0% financing on the 2009 Camry, the most popular car in America. Don't drive much? If you've always wanted an SUV or truck, the discounting on some models is extraordinary.
3. Interest Rates Are Low and Headed Lower: The prime rate is at 4.5%, which is driving down interest rates on home-equity lines of credit and some consumer loans. The interest rate on a traditional 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is averaging 6.5%, the highest it's been since the summer of '07, but still not too far from the historic low of 5.8% reached in 2003-05 and 1963-65. And although credit-card companies are cutting personal spending limits, rates are dropping, too. The average rate on credit-card purchases fell to 11.89% in the first week of October, down from 12.13% in September, according to LowCards.com, which tracks 1,260 credit cards.
4. Homes Are More Affordable: Real estate, which was overpriced during the housing bubble, has returned to earth. That's especially good news for first-time home buyers who were priced out of the market. While scare stories persist of credit drying up, the reality is more a return to traditional lending standards that had been thrown overboard-recklessly in many cases-by lenders. That means to qualify you usually need a 20% down payment, sufficient annual income, good credit and a tolerable load of debt.
5. Your Bank Savings Have Never Been Safer: The $700-billion federal rescue plan more than doubles the amount of federal deposit insurance on individual bank accounts, to $250,000 from $100,000. Uncle Sam is also now providing providing unlimited FDIC insurance on non-interest-bearing accounts, covering virtually all of the nation's small businesses. Plus, a new temporary federal insurance program covers the full value if your money-market-fund shares fall below a net asset value of $1.00 (called "breaking the buck"). The program provides coverage for shareholders for the amount they owned on September 19, 2008. See Your Financial Crisis Questions Answered (opens in new tab) for more.
6. Stocks Are on Sale, and Many Bonds Offer Terrific Yields: The current bear market is approaching the 1973-74 and 2000-2002 downturns, the two worst retreats since World War II. That's the bad news. The good news: Individual blue chips are selling at bargain prices. For example, shares of AT&T (symbol T (opens in new tab)) sell for about eight times estimated 2009 earnings and yield 6%. Networking giant Cisco Systems (CSCO (opens in new tab)) sells for only ten times earnings estimates for its July 2009 fiscal year. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ (opens in new tab)), as steady an Eddie as you'll find, sells for just 13 times '09 forecasts, and Google (GOOG (opens in new tab)) is going for less than 15 times estimates. Triple-A-rated tax-free bonds, an extraordinarily safe investment, are paying 5%-plus for ten years and 6% for 20. That's more than the Treasury offers for bonds of the same maturity.
7. The Miracle of Technological Innovation Continues: Been to Best Buy, Sam's or Costco lately? For $799, you can now buy a 42-inch, high-definition flat-panel TV that will knock your socks off. Throw in another $200, and you can get a surround-sound system to truly transform your den into a home theater. A top-of-the-line PC with more memory than you'll ever use now costs $1,000; high-end laptops with all the bells and whistles go for $1,200, down from $2,000-$4,000 five years ago. And giant leaps in handheld devices, such as Apple's new iPhone (opens in new tab), have revolutionized the way people interact with the world. (Use our PriceGrabber tool (opens in new tab) to compare prices.)
8. Prosperity Reigns in the Heartland: The fall harvest is shaping up as one of the best ever, despite the destructive weather and floods in the Mississippi River corridor since last spring. Exports of U.S. farm products will increase more than 40% by value this year. And recent years of high profits have allowed farmers to pay down debt so low that it accounts for a measly 9% of their assets -- providing all the credit they'll need for 2009 operations. At home, while food prices jumped sharply earlier this year, the weak economy is now expected to slow further price increases. (Consider Maine Lobster, now selling for only $5.99 a pound).
9. A New Tone and Direction in Washington: Whether it's Barack Obama or John McCain who enters the White House in January, election of a new chief executive should provide at least 100 days of galvanizing certainty for markets, and a new direction and sense of purpose for the country.
10. Shoppers Can Expect Great Gift Buys This Holiday Season: Retailers depend on robust end-of-year sales to turn a profit, but for 2008, the National Federation of Retailers forecasts holiday spending will increase only 2.2% from last year. That won't even beat inflation. It's good news for bargain hunters, though. Both brick-and-mortar and online retailers are gearing up to offer huge discounts to boost sales. For example, Deal News (opens in new tab) predicts a DUAL Core Intel Laptop will go for as low as $299 on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and a Canon PowerShot SD1100 (recommended in our Simple Tech picks) will go for a very low $139.
So chin up. We've been through hard times before. To quote Rudyard Kipling, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ..."
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