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November 27, 2012

Five economic trends to be thankful for

(Continued)

— The cost of servicing that debt is way, way down. Not only do American families owe less money than they did a few years ago, the price of maintaining that debt is much lower than it once was. In late 2007, debt service payments added up to a whopping 14 percent of disposable personal income. Now it's down to 10.7 percent, about the same as in the early 1990s. That reflects both Americans reducing their debt burdens (see above), and ultra-low interest rate policies from the Federal Reserve that has reduced the rates paid on debts that remain. Translation: It costs Americans $403 billion less, or about $1,300 per person, to make their debt payments than it would if debt service costs were still at their 2007 ratio.

— Electricity and natural gas prices are falling. Americans who cook or heat their homes with natural gas are seeing big savings, thanks to falling prices for the fuel: The retail price for consumers' gas service piped into their homes is down 8.4 percent in the year ended in October. The lower wholesale price of natural gas is also pulling down electricity prices; they are off 1.2 percent over the past year. Since these are both utility costs that people can't control much in the short-run, that translates directly into more disposable income for Americans to use for everything else they want or need to buy. And in percentage terms, it is most helpful for the middle income and poor, who spend a greater proportion of their income on basic energy needs. For a lower middle-income family making between $19,000 and $35,000, that comes to about $43 in savings.

— Businesses aren't firing people. The job market has been underwhelming in the economic recovery that officially began more than three years ago, and unemployment remains high at 7.9 percent. But there is some hidden good news in the jobs numbers. While businesses aren't adding new workers at a pace that would put the hordes of unemployed back on the job very rapidly, they also aren't slashing jobs at a very rapid clip. Private employers laid off or discharged 1.62 million people in September, according to the Labor Department's Job Openings and Labor Turnover data. That may sound like a lot, but it's near the lowest level in the decade the data goes back. During the depths of the recession, employers were slashing more than 2 million jobs a month. And even during 2006, which was in theory a good year for the economy, employers slashed an average of 1.66 million workers a month, more than they are now. It is a sign that even though employers aren't adding jobs in large numbers, they also are reasonably happy with the workers they have and are not dismissing workers in unusually large numbers. It's a good time if you already have a job.

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