Charles Dickens once said, “Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”
Ten years ago this week, we were trapped in the lingering fallout of the Great Recession. Unemployment had reached 10% for the fist time in a quarter of a century. GM, the ‘heartbeat of America,’ filed for bankruptcy. Housing foreclosures were at record levels. ‘Cash for Clunkers’ was in full force and to add to the gloom, the H1N1 flu strain had reached epidemic levels.
In the U.S., housing declines had started to ease ever so slightly and Wall Street was stabilizing but the ‘damage was done’ so to speak — as home foreclosures reached almost 3 million in 2009 alone, and the economy was still hemorrhaging jobs. The federal government was forced to nationalize the auto industry with an $81 billion cash infusion and Fed stress tests showed that major U.S. banks were gravely under-capitalized including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citigroup, and a host of regional banks.
Around the world, governments were pumping trillions into their own economies in an effort to avoid a deeper downturn or a new setback that could trigger more financial pain. Few nations, regions, or states were spared the marked slowdown in economic activity as GDP growth turned negative in: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Brazil, Denmark, The Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As a whole, the world economy contracted (-)1.7%.
As we sat down at the Thanksgiving table in 2009 — we had lost, on average, two decades of accumulated wealth, more than 30% of our home value, and a large portion of our retirement funds as stocks reached a painful bottom. And yet, we found reasons to give thanks. The Spider-Man float was making a comeback at the 83rd Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Pillsbury Doughboy was making its debut. 2009 was also the year of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger piloted a crippled U.S. Airways jet to safety on the frigid Hudson River — saving all on board. Avatar, Slum Dog Millionaire, and The Hangover were the top escapist flicks and sports dynasty teams reigned supreme as the New York Yankees won the World Series, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl, and the L.A. Lakers won the NBA championships.
Along with the turkey and gravy, we found comfort in a familial gathering without talk of foreclosures, short-sales, bailouts, or crashes. And as one the worst economic downturns in modern history continued to pack a punch, we found the bright side — in cranberry sauce and stuffing, pumpkin pie and football. Ten years later, we’re left with the memories as well as the lessons — that a house is not a nest egg, stocks are not a safe haven, panic is not a crisis hedge, risk is not a tangible asset, and the Fed’s power is only eclipsed by its limitations.
A look back at Thanksgiving during the dark days of the downturn, is a timely reminder to celebrate the good times, prepare for the bad times, and hold tight to those things what never waiver, weaken or fall away — like family, the blessing of good food, the joy of good company, and the strength of the American spirit.