Financial Planning

In a recession, even the good news is bad

NewsNews about the economy stinks, and its human toll is downright depressing.

Eight thousand jobs lost at Sony, 200 lost at Legg Mason, 1,500 gone from Yahoo, 35,000 slated to be axed at Bank of America. Another hundred here, a couple thousand there ... pretty soon, it starts adding up to really big numbers.

And it's probably going to get worse. According to's John Schoen, the U.S. economy has lost 1.9 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, and that number is climbing.

So I couldn't help but smile when a rare bit of seemingly good news crossed my desk today: Americans' household debt fell by almost 1 percent in the third quarter of 2008.

CPAs, of course, have been leading the charge to get Americans to spend less, save more and pay off their debts. We're a country drowning in debt, so any progress on that front seems like a good thing. Lower household debt? Rock on, right?

But when you read that news in the context of our current economic environment, it starts to stink as well.

Why is household debt decreasing? Because Americans aren't buying anything. Debt is extremely hard to come by these days, and that means many Americans can't afford to spend the kind of money it would take to turn the economy around.

And then there's this: "Debt mainly fell because more than a million Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure since the housing crisis hit in August 2007," writes CNNMoney's David Goldman. "When a home is foreclosed upon, the debt is transferred away from the homeowner to the bank. As a result, home mortgage debt sank a whopping 2.4 percent in the quarter."

Talk about a buzz-kill.

One of these days, we're going to wake up and find that the good news really is good, that it's not just another wolf in sheep's clothing. And when that happens, I'll bask in the knowledge and pride that CPAs played a huge role in the turnaround.

Until then, the numbers -- jobs lost, savings lost, homes lost -- will keep getting bigger. When those numbers represent actual human beings, that's the worst news of all.


Bill Sheridan