DECADE REDUX: LEARN TO LOVE THE '80S AGAIN

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The 1990s are almost half over, and I, for one, can't see any evidence to suggest they'll turn out much different from the '80s.

A few columns ago I wrote about how the so-called Greed Decade had some hitherto unknown redeeming qualities. Now I'd like to present empirical evidence we're reverting to behavior patterns social pundits had hoped we had outgrown.

This should not be surprising. Human nature being what it is, people's basic attitudes don't change easily. And human nature also being what it is, other people keep predicting that this decade it will be different and our populace's finer instincts will at last prevail.

Don't make book on it. A story in Crain's New York Business last week was headlined, "Bad boys of '80s return to Wall Street." It seems that all the merger activity has brought back the risk arbitrageurs.

The experts are trying to convince us this time it's different. The arbs themselves maintain the new wave of mergers is being driven by solid business strategies, rather than the smell of easy capital in the way of junk bonds. We shall see.

Scarcely had I digested this development when I came across a front-page story in Automotive News that Japanese cars are back in favor. "The yen is still mightier than the dollar. Critics have panned some Japanese cars as boring. Japanese importers have taken features out of their vehicles to keep prices from going through the roof.

"The news doesn't seem to matter in 1994. Japanese makes are on a roll in the U.S.," Automotive News says. Seven of the 11 Japanese car lines outgained a strong U.S. market in the first quarter, and the Japanese have gained back 1.3 percentage points of share. U.S. car sales are up 12.6% for the quarter but Japanese car sales are up even more, 20.9%.

"The domestics have a very complete victory on the light-truck side. But on the car side they haven't stopped the import invasion of the U.S. market," one auto analyst explained.

So the gunslingers are back on Wall Street and Japanese cars are back in the driver's seat. It's beginning to look a lot like the '80s. Even national brands are wresting share from private labels.

Consumers are reverting to eating patterns of the 1980s, according to DDB Needham Worldwide's Life Style Study. "People were inundated with information about what was good and bad for them in the '80s and early '90s," says Martin Horn, who runs the study. "It was information overload and a lot of it was contradictory. People finally said, `I give up. I cannot live up to all this stuff."'

One difference that seems to be emerging about the consumers of the '90s is that they are very skeptical, according to the study. But what's really different about that? Americans have always been a skeptical lot, and some decades-especially ones where our political leaders defy believability-those consumers have every reason to act in their own best interests, with a lot of caution and a lot of doubt.

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