Unstructured Finance

Debts no honest man could pay

By Matthew Goldstein

For months now we’ve been hearing a lot about the $14 trillion in debt owed by the U.S. government. But there’s been far too little talk about the almost equally high debt tab owed by U.S. consumers.

The Federal Reserve recently reported that total outstanding debt owed by U.S. consumers was $11.4 trillion, down from its third-quarter 2008 peak of $12.5 trillion. At that pace, it could take years for U.S. consumers to delever, or in plain English–reduce the debts they owe on their homes, credit cards, autos and student loans. But when it comes to the staggering sum of consumer debt in this country, it’s pretty clear that time is not on our side.

In fact, the longer it takes for consumers to pay-down their debts, it simply means demand for homes, autos and other big ticket goods will remain lax. And that means the unemployment rate won’t get much lower than its current 9 percent rate anytime soon. In fact, with all the signs pointing to a double-dip recession, unemployment could very well inch higher in the next few months.

In our Special Report, “A “great haircut” to kick-start growth, we take a look at one radical measure for speeding-up the process of consumer deleveraging, which involves some sharing of losses by banks, bond investors and borrowers. Jennifer Ablan and myself found a growing number of economists, analysts and even some institutional investors who are craving for a creative solution to the consumer debt woes plaguing the U.S. economy.

Our story doesn’t discuss the mechanics for instituting a great haircut to jump start the economy. The specifics of just how to spread the losses around is a subject for a later day and is something that can be dealt with at the negotiating table. But hopefully our story, which you can read here, will get the discussion rolling.

Check Out Line: Summer job search advice for teens

jobfair1Check out tough times for job-seeking teens.

Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said teens looking for a summer job will need to dedicate themselves full-time to the search, meaning getting a full-time job will be a full-time job. While many employers have filled summer positions, some may need more than expected while others delayed hiring until summer business conditions became clearer, Challenger CEO John Challenger said.

“The point is, you never know if or when a job opening is going to materialize, so you want to keep pushing,” he said in a statement.

Earlier this spring, the Challenger firm predicted an improved summer hiring outlook for teens compared with last year, when employment among 16- to 19-year-olds grew by less than 1.2 million jobs from May through July.

UPS to U.S. consumer: relax, have an app!

UPS/UPS expects healthy profits in 2010, no thanks to the U.S. consumer the company is trying to entice with iPhone and BlackBerry applications.

Announced in November and December, the free applications enable users to create and track shipments, calculate rates and delivery times and find the nearest UPS location.

“People can browse the web on their phone as easy as on their home computer, so that’ll make it easier and easier to shop for holiday presents and birthday gifts,” Chief Financial Officer Kurt Kuehn told Reuters.

Check Out Line: Retail’s Monday morning quarterbacks

nutcracker.JPGCheck out the various descriptions of the 2009 holiday shopping season, which unofficially ended on Friday with Christmas. Analysts’ Monday morning reviews range from ”adequate” to “quite pleased”.

“All in all … Holiday 2009 was good enough, but has a long way to go with catching up to what the consumer really wants,” said NPD Group analyst Marshal Cohen. “And if the economy is truly to recover, not only does the housing and credit market need to recover, but the innovation market for retail products must recover as well.”

But  some retailers did show improvements in product assortments, according to UBS analyst Roxanne Meyer.

Survey: Most consumers plan to spend less this holiday season

shopping-bagRetailers, listen up. A survey from Discover shows that more consumers believe economic conditions are still getting worse.
 
Discover’s U.S. Spending Monitor for October fell 3.2 points to 85.8 (that’s out of 100, which is where the index started in May 2007).
 
Forty-six percent felt economic conditions were getting worse. That’s up 3 points from September and the first time the survey has seen an increase since July.

Slightly more women (58 percent) than men (53 percent) rated the economy as poor. Overall, 56 percent called the economy poor, up from 52 percent in September.
 
“The Monitor has always shown that women tend to be less optimistic than men about the economy and their finances,” said Julie Loeger, senior vice president of brand and product management for Discover.  “But the record jump in the number of women rating the economy as poor and the pessimism over the current state of their finances may indicate a weak holiday shopping season ahead.”

The Discover U.S. Spending Monitor is based on interviews with 8,200 U.S. adults conducted thoughout October.

World’s financial center is moving, Carlyle co-founder says

USA/The financial crisis has made the world less focused on the U.S., which will have to face up to the fact that it is not as significant as before, Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein told a large audience at the World Business Forum in New York:

“After World War II we were 48 percent of the world’s GDP; now we are about 20 percent of the world’s GDP… We have to get used to the fact that the dollar is relatively cheap and … that the dollar is probably not going to be the reserve currency that it’s been for so many years.”

Rubenstein said the center of the financial world won’t just be New York, but spread between here, London, Shanghai, Dubai, Sao Paulo and a few other cities.

Check Out Line: Diamonds no longer a girl’s best friend?

tiffany1Check out the quarterly results at jeweler Tiffany & Co. It’s enough to make one question  Marilyn Monroe’s choice in songs.

The company posted a slightly weaker-than-expected first-quarter profit and said sales dropped 22 percent as shoppers avoided jewelry. Companies like Tiffany and even more-affordable peers such as Zale Corp have seen demand hurt in the past year as consumers focus on buying necessities in the recession.

In a sign that maybe things are at least stabilizing, Tiffany maintained its full-year profit outlook. Even better, the U.S. economy contracted slightly less than initially estimated in the first quarter.

Check Out Line-Retail sector racks up more bad news

Check out the not-so-chipper news in the retail world.

bk1Restaurant chain Burger King reported lower profits and cut its full-year forecast due to the currency fluctuations, while cosmetics and perfume companies Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden rang up lower, albeit better-than-expected, profits and said they would cut jobs.

Indeed, retailers overall posted the second weakest monthly same-store sales performance since Thomson Reuters began tracking the data in 2000 as heavy job losses, weakness in the U.S. housing sector and the still-tight credit markets have many consumers closing their wallets.

In the mixed-bag camp, apparel retailer Gap saw same-store sales fall more than expected, but raised its full-year profit outlook.

Check Out Line: More bad news for books and drug stores

Check Out some weakness in book and drug stores sales.

Borders dumped Chief Executive George Jones less than threejones2 years after he joined the No. 2 U.S. specialty bookseller, replacing him with a private equity executive with experience turning around ailing companies. The company, which reported a sales decline of almost 12 percent during the holiday shopping season, also named a new chief financial officer as well as replacing its executive vice president for merchandising and marketing.

In November, Borders said it was no longer pursuing a possible sale of the company even as it posted a larger-than-expected operating loss.

Meanwhile, same-store sales at drug stores were not what those retailers were hoping for. Walgreen, which saw sales at store open at least a year rise 4.9 percent in December, said shoppers focused on basic necessities, while staying away from seasonal items. Rite Aid‘s same-store sales in the same period slipped 0.2 percent.

Check Out Line: Black Friday

Check out Black Friday.

Call it a test of the American consumer’s mettle.
How many will feel confident enough about the economy, and their own future within it, to spend money that is increasingly hard to come by? How many will resist the siren call of steep discounts and sales for even the hottest gadgets, like those available at Apple Inc’s stores?

This Black Friday, such questions are not only central to the future of many of the best known U.S. retailers, but amount to a key indicator of how quickly the country’s consumer-led economy will shrink in the coming months. How deep a recession could it be, how long might it last?

At Shop Talk, our colleagues are out across the country today, talking to scores of shoppers and documenting their stories, the hardships they have seen this year and the fears they voice about the coming year, after the holiday gatherings are over.

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