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Nobody Move!

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Transient by nature, more Americans are staying put.

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Shipping 21 boxes and over 700 pounds of clothes, books, sheets, spoons, blenders, blankets, old letters, photographs, and half-written, sure-to-be-Pulitzer-Prize-winning novels isn't cheap.

(FedEx (FDX) shareholders, you're welcome, by the way - I single-handedly supported your bottom line.)

But I'm in the minority: Moving across the country just ain't what it used to be.

According to the New York Times, Americans are staying put as the souring economy drains us of any inclination toward mobility. The Census Bureau reported Wednesday that people who changed residences reached the lowest number since 1962 - even though 120 million more people live in this country now than did 47 years ago.

And while this trend doesn't bode well for FedEx, UPS (UPS), and other companies that move stuff around, it poses a greater threat to the economy as a whole. Our country has benefited mightily from the mobility of its labor force, as employees willing to travel to new job opportunities help spread skills around in the most efficient manner possible.

This is a good thing, as capital and resources are allocated more effectively throughout the economy. And while many are hoping our economy is looking up and Americans will return to their move-happy ways, longer-term structural shifts are unfolding that indicate this may be wishful thinking.

Minyanville's Kevin Depew often discusses risk and time preferences when explaining social mood. When people are happy and optimistic, they're willing to take risks and examine choices with a long-term outlook. On the other hand, when social mood darkens and pessimism reigns, decisions are made by examining a time horizon that becomes increasingly short, as uncertainty clouds even the most near-term economic outlooks.

Take moving. Sure, schlepping out to New York (then back to California, then back to New York, then back to California) is dicey, but when jobs abound, it's worth the risk. On the other hand, when employment is scantly available and cash is scarce, even moving for a promising job causes the risk-inclined to think twice.

This unwillingness to move, to uproot, or to add uncertainty to an already uncertain life, isn't just some transitory phenomenon. As noted in the Times, a dual-income family has a much harder time relocating than the traditional single-earner household, since 2 jobs rather than one must be found anew. And even though home prices are tumbling throughout the country, it's still pretty hard to make ends meet without doubling up on income.

After decades of unprecedented "prosperity" created in part by debt-fueled excesses, the US is retrenching back towards a more sustainable, rational way of life. This is a positive development, however painful it is during the transition.

And as for me and my boxes, I'm emptying out my storage locker -- much to the chagrin of Pubic Storage (PSA) -- and adding to the clutter of a friend's crowded basement. Let's hope those beat-up boxes are up for another 3,000-mile journey - I'm due in exactly 23 months.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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