Consumers Buying, But Keying in on Bargains

October 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

September offered the latest sign that Americans will shop, but only when they think they’re getting a deal.

The Associated Press reported that the International Council of Shopping Centers said today (Oct. 6) that revenue rose 5.5% in September, with several retailers including Target and Kohl’s posting strong gains as consumers snagged discounted merchandise.

The revenue increases, which beat Wall Street estimates, leave uncertainty about whether retailers will have to offer more bargains to lure consumers to buy during the winter holiday shopping season. Retailers can make up to 40% of their revenue during the period, which runs from November through December.

“This past month shows consumers are rewarding retailers who are matching great merchandise with great deals – a clear signal to expect more and earlier promotions as we enter the holiday season, ” said Sherif Mityas, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm.

The revenue gains at stores open at least a year — a key indicator of a retailer’s health — come as merchants look for a sign of how consumers will spend during the winter holiday season.

Though many retailers reported better-than-expected results in September, concerns linger that shoppers who are fretting about high unemployment, a weak housing market and turbulent stock markets, will continue to seek out bargains that could significantly eat away at retailers’ profits.

Wealthy shoppers seem to the only ones who were paying full price. Saks Inc. reported a 9.3% increase in September, better than the 6.5% gain expected by analysts. And Nordstrom Inc. posted a 10.7% surge last month, which exceeded the 5.2% analysts were predicting.


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Apprehension Stalls Out Consumer Spending

September 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

If you’re lusting for a Lexus or pining for a piano, you’re part of a big crowd. Despite a jump in July, consumer spending has slowed to a crawl, according to a report by USA Today.

“We’ve been putting off a bathroom renovation and a new car,” says Ken Whitehead, consultant for UnitedHealthcare in Franklin, Tenn. “We’ve been worried about the economy and the lack of growth that we’ve seen.”

Until consumers such as the Whiteheads start to buy the things they’re yearning for, the economy will remain mired in a slump. Consumer spending is the main engine of U.S. economic growth. “Consumers are very apprehensive and cautious in spending, and we expect that to continue,” says Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.

That’s the question that politicians and economists are pondering now: What will it take to get you to open your wallet? Low interest rates haven’t helped; tax cuts haven’t, either. Raises and a better job market would be a big help, but businesses won’t start hiring until — you guessed it — spending rises. “It’s a Catch-22 situation,” says Lynn Franco, chief economist for The Conference Board.

A tenet of economics is that in a recession, people start pining for things they want, but can’t afford. That’s called pent-up consumer demand. Eventually, they save enough (or get more income) and break down and buy those things. When that happens, the recession ends.

Consider your car. Increased auto sales don’t just enrich car salesmen and car companies. There are hundreds of companies that make parts for cars, and that demand flows to them. Stepping further down the automotive food chain, increased auto sales means higher demand for raw materials, such as rubber, steel and plastics.

There’s plenty of pent-up demand for new cars. The odds are good your current car is older than your last car was when you sold it. In 2010, the latest data available, the average car on the street was 11 years old, up from 8.4 years in 1995, according to Polk, which tracks auto data. More cars were scrapped in the 15 months ended March 2010 than were sold.

Cars are better built than they used to be, which is one reason people are hanging on to them. But another is that people simply don’t feel comfortable buying a new one in the current economy. “What we’re seeing now is that consumers are more in favor of repairing an aging auto than taking on new debt,” Franco says.

Houses are the other obvious example. A new home means work for carpenters, construction workers, sawmill operators and real estate agents. But even if you buy an existing home, you’ll probably also be in the market for carpet, furniture, drapes and lawn gnomes.

Existing home sales have slowed to a trickle, although they’re remarkably affordable. The median price of existing houses relative to average employment income per worker is at its lowest since the 1970s, says John Lonski, economist for Moody’s Analytics. Mortgage rates are at levels last seen in the Truman administration.

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Consumer Spending Rebounds, Rises 0.8% in July

August 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Consumer spending grew in July by 0.8% reports the Associated Press, the largest amount in five months. That followed a decline in June and helped ease fears that the U.S. economy is on the verge of another recession.

Americans bought more cars and spent more last month to cool their homes during a heat wave.

Personal incomes increased 0.3% last month, the Commerce Department said. That’s slightly higher than the modest 0.2% in June, the weakest growth in seven months.

Economists said the spending report was a strong sign that the economy rebounded in July after growing at an annual rate of just 0.7% in the first half of the year — the slowest pace since the recession officially ended two years ago.

Consumer spending is important because it accounts for 70% of economic activity.

July’s spending and income figures “significantly alter the outlook for third-quarter GDP growth,” said Paul Dales, a senior U.S. economist for Capital Economics. Dales said growth for the July-September quarter is on track for an annual rate of 2.5 percent, up from his previous estimate of 1.5 percent.

Dales noted that the report measured spending ahead of a sell-off on Wall Street in late July and early August, which may force consumers and business to pull back on spending and investment. The stock market has lost 11 percent of its value since July 21.

But even if the early August data are weak, talk of another recession “would seem strange” when the economy appears to be growing more strongly, Dales said.

The economy added 117,000 net jobs in July, twice the number added in each of the previous two months. Spending on retail goods rose faster last month than in any month since March. U.S. automakers rebounded last month to boost factory production by the most since the Japan crisis.

In July, consumer spending rose at a faster pace than income. That means Americans saved less. The savings rate fell to a four-month low of 5%, down from 5.5% in June.


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Report: June U.S. Spending, Incomes Stall Out

August 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Consumer spending dropped in June for the first time in nearly two years and incomes barely rose, signs the economy lacked momentum as the second quarter drew to a close, according to a Reuters report.

The U.S. Commerce Department said on Tuesday (Aug. 2) consumer spending slipped 0.2%, the first decline since September 2009, after edging up 0.1% in May. Adjusted for inflation, spending was flat after a 0.1% decline. Incomes rose just 0.1%.

“It certainly gets us off on a very soft footing for the third quarter and does call into question a bit the notion of a second half pick-up,” said Julia Coronado, North America chief economist at BNP Paribas in New York. “We are not seeing it yet going into the third quarter.”

The data, which was incorporated in a report on U.S. economic growth on Friday that showed the economy expanded at less than a 1% annual rate over the first half of the year, was the latest to underscore the recovery’s frail state.

A report on Monday showed manufacturing activity hit a two-year low in July, leading some economists to dial back expectations for growth over the second half of the year.

For the third-quarter, many economists have scaled back growth estimates to around 2.5% from 3%.

“If the recovery is ever going to gain speed, it will have to come from households deciding they want to spend money again,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.


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Report: May Consumer Spending Stalls Out

June 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

For the first time in a year, Americans have stopped spending more.

The Associated Press reported that consumer spending failed to budge from April to May, evidence that high gas prices and unemployment are squeezing household budgets. When adjusted for inflation, spending actually dropped 0.1% last month, the Commerce Department reported Monday (June 27).

April’s consumer spending figures were revised to show a similar decline when adjusting for inflation. It marked the first two-month decline in inflation-adjusted spending since April 2009.

Incomes rose 0.3% for the second straight month. But adjusted for inflation, after-tax incomes increased only 0.1% in May, after falling by the same amount in the previous month.

Neil Dutta, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, pointed out that inflation-adjusted, after-tax income is now slightly lower than it was in January.

“It was a very poor report all around,” he said. “I think it’s clear that higher gasoline prices are taking a bite out of consumer spending.”

Consumer spending is important because it accounts for 70% of economic activity. The spike in gas prices has forced many consumers to cut back on discretionary purchases, such as furniture and vacations, which help boost growth.

Fewer jobs and high unemployment have left workers with little leverage to ask for raises. And slow wage growth hurts the broader economy because consumers have less money to spend.

Economists note that the slowdown in spending was partly the result of temporary factors.

Auto purchases fell sharply in May. That lowered spending on long-lasting manufactured goods 1.5%, the steepest drop since September 2009. Dealers had limited supplies of many cars because of a parts shortage stemming from the crisis in Japan. U.S. factories are expected to begin producing more cars once Japan’s factories resume more normal operations.

Gas prices peaked in early May at a national average of nearly $4 per gallon. Since then, they have dropped to a national average of $3.57 per gallon, according to AAA’s daily fuel gauge. Cheaper gas will likely allow consumers to spend more freely this summer and fall. That should boost growth in the second half of the year.

The economy expanded at an annual rate of 1.9% in the January-March period. An Associated Press survey of 38 top economists predicts that the growth rate will be about 2.3% in the current April-June quarter. They are more optimistic for the second half of the year, saying growth should pick up to a 3.2% pace.

Still, growth must be stronger to significantly lower the unemployment rate. The economy would need to grow 5% for a whole year to significantly bring down the unemployment rate. Economic growth of just 3% a year would hold the unemployment steady and keep up with population growth.

Hiring slowed considerably this spring after a strong start at the beginning of the year. The economy created only 54,000 jobs in May, the lowest amount in eight months. That followed three months in which employers hired an average of 220,000 net new workers each month. The unemployment rate rose to 9.1% last month.

The consumer spending report also showed that prices are increasing across many goods and services. A key inflation gauge followed by the Federal Reserve rose 0.2% in May, after increasing 0.3% or higher in each of the previous five months.

But excluding the volatile food and energy categories, inflation rose 0.3 percent in May, the most since October 2009.

Americans boosted their savings a bit in May, keeping 5% of their after-tax income. That is up from 4.9% in April.

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Good News: Consumer Spending Keeps Rising

March 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

U.S. consumer spending rose 0.7% in February, the largest increase since October and the eighth straight month of gains, easing some worries about the economic recovery, the Wall Street Journal reported.

After adjusting for inflation — factoring out such things as the jump in gas prices — consumption rose 0.3%, the Commerce Department said Monday (March 28).

“Consumers could have endured these higher (gasoline) prices by cutting back on discretionary purchases, but they did not,” said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics.

The pickup in spending came as personal income rose by 0.3% last month, though higher prices sapped the gains. The saving rate, meanwhile, slid to 5.8%.

Congress and the Obama administration in December agreed to extend income tax cuts for Americans. The tax relief has fattened paychecks, providing consumers a cushion against rising gasoline prices.

Recreational-vehicle maker Winnebago Industries Inc. blamed gasoline prices as it watched sales fall in its second quarter. Fuel prices were also factor in a drop in first-quarter earnings for cruise-ship line Carnival Corp. Still, Carnival had better-than-expected revenue and said summer ticket prices remained strong.

Despite rising commodity prices, inflation at the consumer level is tame. A gauge closely watched by the Federal Reserve rose in February but only slightly, the Commerce Department reported. The core price index for personal consumption expenditures, which excludes food and energy prices because of their volatility, increased 0.9% on a year-over-year basis, after climbing 0.8% in January. The overall index rose 1.6% from a year earlier largely due to gasoline prices.

Separately, the National Association of Realtors on Monday said its index for pending sales of existing homes increased 2.1% to 90.8 in February from January. Year-over-year, sales were down 8.2% from their level in February 2010.

The trade group’s index tracks agreements to purchase previously owned homes. A sale is considered pending when the contract has been signed but the transaction hasn’t closed. Pending sales typically close within one or two months of signing.

The housing market is trying to recover from its collapse after a long boom. Home sales soared during the boom, lifting prices, but began sliding in 2006, leading to the bursting of the bubble. Demand has been weak since.

Sales rebounded slightly early in 2010 thanks to the home-buyer tax credits but collapsed again when those incentives expired, and there has been little talk in Congress of reviving the incentive.

There are many signs that the market remains weak. High rates of joblessness and elevated foreclosures continue to depress home values. “The housing market dynamic still looks horrible,” said Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities.

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Consumer Spending Grew Slightly in January

March 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

A tax cut that began last month gave consumers the biggest jump in their incomes in nearly two years. But Americans boosted their spending only slightly, a sign that many people are being cautious with their money even as the economy improves, the Associated Press reported.

Consumers increased spending 0.2% in January, the smallest gain since June, the Commerce Department reported Monday. Personal incomes jumped 1%, reflecting the 2 percentage point reduction from the Social Security tax cut.

The small spending gain pushed total spending last month to an annual rate of $10.59 trillion, up 7.4% from the recession low hit in December 2008. Some economists said that poor weather may have played a role in slowing spending growth last month. They are counting on spending to increase throughout the year, which would help the economy grow.

Separately, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) said fewer people signed contracts to purchase homes in January, the latest evidence that the housing market is struggling. The trade group said its index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes fell 2.8% last month to a reading of 89.9.

That’s higher than the 75.9 reading from June, the low point since the housing bust. But it’s below 100, which is considered a healthy level. The last time it reached that point was in April, the final month people could qualify for a home-buying tax credit.

Consumer spending was growing at the fastest pace in four years in the final three months of 2010, helping to support the overall economy. But the weak showing in January raised questions about how strong spending will be going forward.

The modest 0.2% rise in spending was even weaker when inflation was taken into account. After adjusting for price changes – particularly a steep rise in energy costs – spending actually dipped 0.1% in January. That was the poorest showing since inflation-adjusted spending had fallen 0.8% in September 2009.

“Overall we expect consumption to be fairly strong in the first half of the year. But the way things are going at the moment, all the payroll tax cut will do is offset the rise in gasoline and food prices, rather than provide a boost to real spending,” said Paul Dales, senior economist at Capital Economics.

The latest survey by the National Association for Business Economics released Monday predicted consumer spending will rise 3.2% this year, up significantly from the actual spending gain of 1.8% in 2010.

The Social Security tax cut will give the typical family an extra $1,000 to spend this year. But the recent surge in gasoline prices has raised worries that consumers may need to spend the extra money on fuel, and not new goods and services.

For January, consumers boosted spending on durable goods, items like new cars, and on nondurable goods such as food and gasoline. But they trimmed spending on services.

The 1% rise in incomes in January would have been a much more modest 0.1% gain if the effects of the tax changes had been excluded.

The rise in incomes and small increase in spending meant that the personal savings rate rose in January. Households saved 5.8% of their after-tax incomes, up from 5.4% in December. For all of 2010, the savings rate was 5.8%. That’s down slightly from 5.9% in 2009.

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Consumer Spending Up First Time Since ’07?

October 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Consumers are buying more luxury items but spending remains tight for everyday essentials such as food and dental care, a USA TODAY analysis finds, suggesting a growing divide between haves and have-nots.

Purchases of TVs, jewelry, recreational vehicles and pet supplies are growing robustly, government data show. At the same time, spending on medical care, day care and education is down in the dumps.

“The rising tide isn’t lifting all boats,” says Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at the Deloitte accounting and consulting firm and author of an index tracking consumer spending.

He says higher-income and older households, helped by a strong stock market, are experiencing increased wealth and spending more. However, high unemployment is pulling in the other direction, depressing spending among people without jobs and those anxious about job security.

Consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the nation’s economy and is crucial to any recovery. Spending rose 1.4% in the first eight months of this year compared with the same period a year earlier, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. Consumers are on track to increase spending for the first time since 2007.

Yet more than one-third of the 350 spending categories tracked by the government remain in decline, as if the recession that technically ended in June 2009 was still underway. Spending on new cars has fallen another 8.2% this year, on top of disastrous drops in 2008 and 2009. Consumers are spending less on prescription drugs, life insurance and a wide range of everyday essentials while spending more on watches, wine and toys. Part of the jump in luxury items is a rebound from deep lows in the recession. What’s hot now:

  • Televisions. Spending is up 34.7% this year, tops among consumer items. “There is a lot of excitement” because of 3-D TVs, bigger panels and high definition, says Best Buy’s Scott Morris.
  • Recreational vehicles. Winnebago Industries Inc. sales have doubled. The company added 350 workers. Buyers — typically 55 or older — are purchasing somewhat less expensive RVs, says Winnebago spokeswoman Sheila Davis.
  • Pet supplies. Organic dog food, timed cat food dispensers and other high-end pet items are driving healthy increases in spending, says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. “People are cutting back on themselves more than they’re cutting back on pets,” he says.

Pet products illustrate how some consumers are going high end and others low end. Cheap pet food is selling briskly, reflecting the weak economy, at the same time costly items are thriving, he says. It’s the middle of the market that’s shrinking, he says.

Entertainment that depends on mass appeal is still hurting. Spending at concerts, movie theaters and casinos is down.

The revenue decline at casinos is starting to stabilize, says Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., president of the American Gaming Association. “We’re not going to see a dramatic turnaround until employment picks up,” he says. “We’re still packing people in. They’re just spending less.”

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