Saturday, August 29, 2009

Consumption junction

Published: August 28, 2009
New York Times via Across the Curve blog

AUSTIN, Tex. — Even as evidence mounts that the Great Recession has finally released its chokehold on the American economy, experts worry that the recovery may be weak, stymied by consumers’ reluctance to spend.

Given that consumer spending has in recent years accounted for 70 percent of the nation’s economic activity, a marginal shrinking could significantly depress demand for goods and services, discouraging businesses from hiring more workers. (The economy is the consumer stupid!-AM)

Millions of Americans spent years tapping credit cards, stock portfolios and once-rising home values to spend in excess of their incomes and now lack the wherewithal to carry on. Those who still have the means feel pressure to conserve, fearful about layoffs, the stock market and real estate prices.

“We’re at an inflection point with respect to the American consumer,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy .com, who correctly forecast a dip in spending heading into the recession, and who provided data supporting sustained weakness.

Lower-income households can’t borrow, and higher-income households no longer feel wealthy,” Mr. Zandi added. “There’s still a lot of debt out there. It throws a pall over the potential for a strong recovery. The economy is going to struggle.”

In recent weeks, spending has risen slightly because of exuberant car buying, fueled by the cash-for-clunkers program. On Friday, the Commerce Department said spending rose 0.2 percent in July from the previous month. But most economists see this activity as short-lived, pointing out that incomes did not rise. Some suggest the recession has endured so long and spread pain so broadly that it has seeped into the culture, downgrading expectations, clouding assumptions about the future and eroding the impulse to buy.

The Great Depression imbued American life with an enduring spirit of thrift. The current recession has perhaps proven wrenching enough to alter consumer tastes, putting value in vogue.

Households must increasingly depend upon paychecks to finance spending, a reality that seems likely to curb consumption: Unemployment stands at 9.4 percent and is expected to climb higher. Working hours have been slashed even for those with jobs.

Economists subscribe to a so-called wealth effect: as households amass wealth, they tend to expand their spending over the following year, typically by 3 to 5 percent of the increase.

Between 2003 and 2007 — prime years of the housing boom — the net worth of an American household expanded to about $540,000, from about $400,000, according to an analysis of federal data by Moody’s

Now, the wealth effect is working in reverse: by the first three months of this year, household net worth had dropped to $421,000.

“Not only have people lost money, but they don’t expect as much appreciation in the money they have, and that should affect consumption,” said Andrew Tilton, an economist at Goldman Sachs. “This is a cultural shift going on. People will save more.”

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