Consumer Spending May Actually Be Dropping

The New York Times says that rather than slowing, consumer spending may actually be dropping, and that’s not good.

There are mounting anecdotal signs that beginning in December Americans cut back significantly on personal consumption, which accounts for 70 percent of the economy.

A raft of consumer companies — high-end stores like Nordstrom and Tiffany, and middle-of-the-road ones like Target and J. C. Penney — reported a pronounced slowdown in growth last month, and in several cases an outright drop in business.

American Express said that starting in early December the growth in the rate of spending by its 52 million cardholders, a generally affluent group of consumers, fell 3 percentage points, from 13 percent to 10 percent, the first slowdown since the 2001 recession.

And consumer confidence, an important barometer of economic health, has plunged. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, says consumer satisfaction with the economy has reached a 15-year low, according to the firm’s polling.

Even wealthier consumers, who were seen as invulnerable to rising gasoline prices and falling home values, are feeling the squeeze.

“People are clearly concerned that we are headed into a recession,” said Stephen I. Sadove, the chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue, the upscale department store whose runaway growth throughout much of the year slowed markedly in December.

Consumer spending slowed, but didn’t drop during the 2001 recession. The NYT says you’d have to go back to 1980 to find an instance in which consumer spending dropped in an election year.

Even in tough economic times Americans rarely reduce their consumption, preferring instead to slow the growth in their spending. Since 1980, they have cut spending in only five quarters — a total of 15 months — most of them in the depths of a recession. The 2001 recession passed without a cutback in consumer spending.

Only once before, in 1980, did consumer spending fall during a presidential election year, helping Ronald Reagan in his campaign against Jimmy Carter, the Democratic incumbent.

Americans Cut Back Sharply on Spending [NYT] (Thanks, Molly!)
(Photo:Ben Popken)