One Number Says it All

By Stephen S Roach
Via AlJazeera English  

With consumer confidence taking a dip, Americans will a feel ripple effect from the drop in spending.

The number is 0.2 per cent. It is the average annualised growth of US consumer spending over the past 14 quarters – calculated in inflation-adjusted terms from the first quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2011. Never before in the post-World War II era have American consumers been so weak for so long. This one number encapsulates much of what is wrong today in the US – and in the global economy.

There are two distinct phases to this period of unprecedented US consumer weakness. From the first quarter of 2008 through the second period of 2009, consumer demand fell for six consecutive quarters at a 2.2 per cent annual rate. Not surprisingly, the contraction was most acute during the depths of the Great Crisis, when consumption plunged at a 4.5 per cent rate in the third and fourth quarters of 2008.

As the US economy bottomed out in mid-2009, consumers entered a second phase – a very subdued recovery. Annualized real consumption growth over the subsequent eight-quarter period from the third quarter of 2009 through the second quarter of 2011 averaged 2.1 per cent. That is the most anemic consumer recovery on record – fully 1.5 percentage points slower than the 12-year pre-crisis trend of 3.6 per cent that prevailed between 1996 and 2007.

These figures are a good deal weaker than originally stated. As part of the annual reworking of the US National Income and Product Accounts that was released in July 2011, Commerce Department statisticians slashed their earlier estimates of consumer spending. The 14-quarter growth trend from early 2008 to mid-2011 was cut from 0.5 per cent to 0.2 per cent; the bulk of the downward revision was concentrated in the first six quarters of this period – for which the estimate of the annualized consumption decline was doubled, from 1.1 per cent to 2.2 per cent.

I have been tracking these so-called benchmark revisions for about 40 years. This is, by far, one of the most significant I have ever seen. We all knew it was tough for the American consumer – but this revision portrays the crisis-induced cutbacks and subsequent anemic recovery in a much dimmer light.

The reasons behind this are not hard to fathom. By exploiting a record credit bubble to borrow against an unprecedented property bubble, American consumers spent well beyond their means for many years. When both bubbles burst, over-extended US households had no choice but to cut back and rebuild their damaged balance sheets by paying down outsize debt burdens and rebuilding depleted savings.

Yet, on both counts, balance-sheet repair has only just begun. While household-sector debt was pruned to 115 per cent of disposable personal income in early 2011 from the peak of 130 per cent hit in 2007, it remains well in excess of the 75 per cent average of the 1970-2000 period. And, while the personal saving rate rose to 5 per cent of disposable income in the first half of 2011 from the rock-bottom 1.2 per cent low hit in mid-2005, this is far short of the nearly 8 per cent norm that prevailed during the last 30 years of the twentieth century. Read story at AlJazeera English

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s