10 Blessings of a Battered Economy

There's plenty of gloom—but also a few reasons for cheer.

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Countercyclical start-ups. There are plenty of reasons not to start a business in a turbulent economy. Consumer spending is down, for one. And getting a business financed—be it through venture capital or credit cards—is more difficult than ever. But for true entrepreneurs, following the conventional wisdom could end up riskier than taking the plunge today. One reason is that smaller, more responsive operations can adapt faster to circumstances and even thrive in a difficult economic environment that drags down bigger competitors. Businesses with only a few employees don't have that much overhead, for instance, so slow cash flow doesn't have to be life threatening. And recessions, while they squash some opportunities, create others. "Large companies are going to shed costs, so they only use things when they absolutely need them," says Jeff Cornwall, entrepreneurship professor at Belmont University. "Small businesses [can] capture that." Leap now and you might beat competitors waiting for a more forgiving economy. Wait and you might find the market saturated.

Desperate car dealers. Car sales have collapsed, and with unsold models piling up on dealer lots, even popular vehicles are on sale. Former top sellers like the Honda Odyssey minivan and Mazda CX-7 crossover now come with rebates or special financing deals—or both—and tough negotiating might get you one below the dealer's invoice. Even Toyota, long able to charge a premium for its vehicles and avoid generous giveaways, is now offering zero-percent loans and other come-ons. And it goes without saying that there are huge discounts on big SUVs like the Jeep Commander and Chevrolet Tahoe, which are out of favor with thrifty buyers but might still be fine for people who mostly drive a gaggle of kids around town. As with mortgages, it's harder to qualify for a car loan. But if you have good credit and can make a 10 or 20 percent down payment, dealers desperately want to sell you a car. So make them an offer they can't refuse.

Undervalued stocks. If you have any cash left after the recent rout—and a healthy dose of gumption—you might be able to buy stocks at the cheapest prices in a generation. The current price-to-earnings ratio of the S&P 500 is around 14, according to data compiled by Yale's Robert Shiller. That's below a long-term average of 16.3, and by this measure stocks look the cheapest they've been since 1985. Lots of solid, well-known companies are trading at even deeper discounts than the overall S&P: Home Depot, Boeing, and 3M all have P/E's below 14. Just make sure you buy for the long haul—and can withstand a few more months of vertigo.

A return to simpler times. Americans are starting to take up retro habits that evoke come-together moments from the past. If a car isn't available, some commuters now turn to bikes they can acquire free from Craigslist. Instead of buying new wardrobes from fast-fashion retailers, recessionistas, as they're called, swap clothes with friends or take up knitting. If restaurant meals strain the budget, more families are learning to cook—sometimes with food grown in their own backyards. The new frugality saves money, but it has other upsides. Biking and walking are obviously healthier than driving. Hand-me-downs keep old clothes out of landfills a while longer.

A lower tax bill. President-elect Barack Obama has proposed a slew of tax cuts for middle-class consumers, and, with the economy desperate for a boost, it could be one of his first orders of business after taking office in January. His proposals include a $500-per-worker tax credit for people who earn less than $150,000; a 10 percent universal mortgage credit for homeowners who don't itemize their deductions; and a $4,000 credit per child in college. Obama says that a married couple with no kids making $90,000 per year would save $1,000 in taxes, and a couple making $75,000 with two children, one of whom is in college, could save $3,700. Households earning more than $250,000 are probably in for a tax hike, but very likely not until 2010, when the economy is healthier.


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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.