by Daniel Indiviglio
Sadly, someday this recession is going to end.
After 17 months of steep decline, both the president's Council of Economic Advisors and the Federal Reserve now believe the economy will begin to recover sometime in 2009.
Great news, to be sure. But it's also a warning to consumers: The deals you're seeing on everything from houses and cars to televisions and furniture won't last forever. Luckily, for a host of goods and services, the sale of the century (literally) is still on.
The reason is simple: no buyers. Personal savings in 2008 were nearly six times greater than in 2005, amounting to $191 billion or 1.8% of the nation's disposable income. In 2009, annualized savings for January and February exceeded $450 billion, or more than 4% of disposable income.
For those feeling bold enough to bargain shop, opportunities abound. Some deals, like housing and automobiles, might be obvious, but others, like diamonds, might not be.
Big Ticket Items
At the top of the list: housing. This may be the best time in a generation to buy a home. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, fourth-quarter 2008 prices were down 25% from the four quarter of 2006. The stimulus bill Congress passed in February includes an $8,000 credit for first-time home buyers. According to bankrate.com, average interest rates are beginning to dip below 5% for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.
More good news for consumers: Automakers had a miserable 2008. Auto demand is down by approximately 33% since October and dealers have excess inventory backing up and bills coming due. It's a good time to buy.
Incentives from manufacturers have "probably never been as strong as they are today," says John McEleney, a multi-franchise auto dealer and chairman of the National Auto Dealers Association. If you've got good credit, you can expect 0% financing and cash rebates as high as $6,000.
Another deal? Diamonds. Anyone in the market for a something sparkly will find prices down 14%, on average, since their highs in mid-2008, according to Ken Gassman of the Jewelry Research Institute. Gassman says more expensive diamonds have seen even greater drops. A pristine 4-carat diamond that went for $70,000 per carat is now selling for $51,700 per carat--a 26% discount.
Each year it seems like TVs get cheaper and cheaper, but this year those decreases are starting to make larger flat-panel TVs far more affordable. The radio/television category in February's Consumer Price Index was down 9% from a year ago as more manufacturers get into the flat-panel business, driving prices down.
Same thing for furniture. The Consumer Price Index shows prices fell 2.4% since August, but even bigger bargains are out there. With fewer people buying houses, fewer shoppers are filling them. Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Macy's says demand has noticeably decreased over the past year. Retailers have excess inventory, leading to lower prices and better deals for consumers.
Women's fashion is also an interesting story. Right now there is no dominant fashion trend in women's apparel, according to Jeffrey Klinefelter, senior research analyst on the Piper Jaffray consumer team.
Women have been taking greater advantage of lower-cost clothing retailers like Forever 21 and Target, not feeling the need to spend more on expensive outfits. This allows the lower-cost chains to reduce their prices through production cost savings and requires the higher-cost chains and designers to cut prices on their excess inventory in response to lower demand.
So if you're ready to spend a little, now's the time. Bargains are out there--for as long as the downturn holds.
Things to Buy Before the Economy Improves
The deals you're seeing on everything from houses and cars to televisions and furniture won't last forever. As the economy improves in coming months, they'll evaporate. Luckily, for a host of goods and services, the sale of the century (literally) is still on. A look at 10 things you may want to buy while they buying's good.
1. A Car
With the auto industry suffering, manufacturers are offering huge incentives on their swelling inventories of new cars. Buyers with good credit can get 0% financing on most types of cars and some cash rebates can be upward of $6,000. Don't rule out a used car either: The February 2009 Consumer Price Index shows a 10% decrease in used car prices from a year ago.
2. A Vacation
Need a break? Now's the time to take one. According to Expedia.com research, average hotel prices in many desirable destinations have plummeted. For example, hotel prices in Las Vegas are down 34% from a year ago. Average Caribbean cruise prices have fallen 8% compared with the first quarter of 2008. Several travel agents also bragged about booking week-long Alaskan summer cruises for as low as $1,000 per person, including airfare and taxes.
3. High-Dividend Stocks
The S&P 500 is down 40% from a year ago and could fall further, but for those willing to brave the market and wait, deals abound. Inflation could make it an even better time to buy. Washington's bailouts and ballooning budgets may make stocks with a history of high dividends a good option--they take advantage of today's low stock prices and implicitly protect investors from future inflation through regular dividend payments.
4. A Laptop
Paul Ryder, vice president of consumer electronics for Amazon.com, says laptop prices have dropped thanks to the interest in netbooks. Although the Consumer Price Index does not break out laptop computers from others, it seems to broadly support this claim, with personal computer prices falling 13% in February from a year earlier.
5. A Television
Each year it seems as though TVs get cheaper and cheaper, but this year those decreases are starting to make larger flat-panel TVs far more affordable. The radio/television category in February's Consumer Price Index was down 9% from a year ago as more manufacturers get into the flat-panel business, driving prices down.