If this is the first recession of the 21st century, it's a whole new animal.
That thought rushes to mind as I sit in the driver seat of my friends' new car. Moments earlier we had been saying our goodbyes for the evening when he asked me to checkout his new car. Expecting to see the 5th in a long succession of BMW 750 Ils'--- the long one with the 12 cylinder engine that will outrun anything but an all-points bulletin--- I wondered if he had done something dramatic, like change from Supreme Power Black to Sublime Leader Silver, or add a second extension phone for the rear seat.
But it wasn't a BMW. It was a new Lexus 430 sedan, the one with the Buddhist-Origami leather and burled wood interior, the windshield wipers that move in exquisite rhythm to the rainfall, the cruise control that bows politely and refuses to overrun any car that might rudely occupy the road in front of you, and a heavenly voice that inquires about your welfare if one of the airbags happens to deploy.
We have achieved such a high level of affluence that literally millions of American households can "cut back" and virtually no one will notice the difference, including peers. This is not your father's recession; it's a different animal altogether.
Don't get me wrong. Jobs have been lost. Unemployment is up. Stocks are down. Some have disappeared. Confidence has been declining. A record number of people have taken personal bankruptcy. We have the familiar litany of worries. And we have the new one. Both are quite real.
Even so, the glass isn't half empty. It is far more than half full.
At the end of August the index that measures the total market value of all stocks in America, the Wilshire 5000, was down about 27 percent for the preceding 12 months. This decline matches the worst year of the 73-74 crash, so we're talking serious decline. It may be better, or worse, by the time you read this. Whatever the change, I'll bet heavy money that the return on common stocks over the last 10 and 15 years will still be well over the long-term average return of 11 percent.
A mere statistic?
Hardly. Most people are not only better off than they were 10 or 15 years ago, they're better off than they hoped they might be 10 or 15 years ago. We simply don't fathom the amazing wealth of America.
This isn't limited to the stock market, either; witness the story of another friend. In 1970 he bought a house on Cape Cod. It was the Iconic Waterfront Beach House. Price tag: $90,000. Last year, stumbling at the perimeter of his dotage, he lost most of his investment money and was forced to sell the Iconic Waterfront Beach House.
The selling price? Try $3.1 million.
He may have to buy a Lexus.