Monday, March 29, 2010

U.S. Consumer Spending: Not Indicating Economic Recovery

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

The Commerce Department released figures for February consumer spending on March 29th. The report indicated that consumer spending was up 0.3% in February, but personal incomes were flat. The savings rate was lower though, dropping to 3.1% from 3.4% in January. Spending increases were highest for necessities, such as food and clothing. Spending on non-durables actually fell. Nevertheless, somehow the mainstream media looked at these figures and concluded, "Both the spending and income figures in Monday's report point to a modest economic recovery".

Now for a dose of reality.

If income is not going up, but consumer spending is going up, there are only three possible explanations. Consumers have either gotten increased credit and are borrowing more, they are spending savings, or they are selling assets.  If they are spending savings or selling assets to support their spending, the economy is in very bad shape, somewhat similar to the way it was during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Since the savings rate was still a positive number, consumers were not taking more money out of their savings accounts than they were putting into them. So consumers were still saving, but at a lower rate. The 'Personal Incomes and Outlays' report (that's its official name) doesn't analyze buying and selling of assets, but does have a figure on 'Personal Income Receipts on Assets' that includes interest and dividend income. This number decreased by $16.5 billion in both February and January and that may indicate that the public is quite possibly a net seller of assets. Consumer credit is also not handled in the report, but the latest figures from the Federal Reserve indicate that revolving (read credit card) consumer credit declined at a 2.5% annualized rate in January.

While the sources for the supposed increases in U.S. consumer spending are murky at best, the amount of consumer spending in and of itself is not a determinant of whether or not economic recovery is taking place. The increased spending needs to come from economic growth and not government spending. If it comes from more government spending, better numbers are just a shell game and are actually an indicator of just how troubled the economy really is.  U.S. consumer spending rose $34.7 billion in February. Of that amount, $16.6 billion came from an increase in federal government transfer payments. That is only the one-month change in federal spending being funneled directly into consumer's pocket. Government support for the U.S. economy has increased substantially and in myriad ways since the beginning of the recession in December 2007.

While consumer credit has declined significantly since the Credit Crisis began, government borrowing has increased to make up the slack. This is why the U.S. is facing a $1.6 trillion budget deficit in fiscal year 2010.  The record levels of government borrowing are propping up the entire U.S. economy, including consumer spending. Governments don't spend more when economies recover; they spend less. Only when U.S. government spending begins to decline sharply and reports come out that consumer spending is increasing should investors consider believing that economic recovery is really taking place.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Market Says U.S. Treasuries Riskier Than Corporate Debt

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,  New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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