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Why the American Consumer Will Never Be Back

Economics / US Economy Apr 11, 2015 - 12:31 PM GMT

By: Raul_I_Meijer

Economics

That title may be a bit much, granted, because never is a very long time. I might instead have said “The American Consumer Won’t Be Back For A Very Long Time”. Still, I simply don’t see any time in the future that would see Americans start spending again at a rate anywhere near what would be required for an economic recovery. Looks pretty infinity and beyond to me.

However, that is by no means a generally accepted point of view in the financial press. There’s reality, and then there’s whatever it is they’re smoking, and never the twain shall meet. Admittedly, my title may be a bit provocative, but in my view not nearly as provocative, if not offensive, as Peter Coy’s at Bloomberg, who named his latest effort “US Consumers Will Open Their Wallets Soon Enough”.


I know, sometimes they make it just too easy to whackamole ‘em down and into the ground. But even then, these issues must be addressed time and again until people begin to understand, and quit making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. People have a right to know what’s truly happening to their lives, and their societies. And they’re not nearly getting enough of it through the ‘official’ press. So here goes nothing:

US Consumers Will Open Their Wallets Soon Enough

People are constantly exhorted to save, but as soon as they do, economists pop up to complain they aren’t spending enough to keep the economy growing. A new blogger named Ben Bernanke wrote on April 1 that there’s still a “global savings glut.” Two days later the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the weakest job growth since 2013, which economists quickly attributed to soft consumer spending.

The first problem with Coy’s thesis is that even if people open their wallets, far too many of them will find there’s nothing there. And Bernanke simply doesn’t understand what savings are. His ideas through the past decade+ about a Chinese savings glut were always way off the mark, and his global – or American – savings glut theory is, if possible, even more wrong. In the minds of the world’s Bernankes, there’s no such thing as people opening their wallets to find them empty. If they don’t spend, they must be saving. That there’s a third option, that of not having any dollars to spend, is for all intents and purposes ignored.

The U.S. personal savings rate—5.8% in February—is the highest since 2012. “After years of spending as if there were no tomorrow, consumers are now saving like there is a tomorrow,” Richard Moody, chief economist at Regions Financial, wrote to clients in March. Saving too much really can be a problem when spending is weak.

The little man inside, when I read things like that, tells me this is nonsense. So I decided to look up how the US personal savings rate is calculated. Turns out, it’s another one of those whacky goal-seeked government numbers. At least, that’s what I make of it. Mainly, though not even exclusively, because of things like this, from a site called Take A Smart Step:

[The personal savings rate in] November 2012 was 3.6%, this is not even close to where we need to be for financial health. This savings rate barely gives us enough to handle emergencies, and makes us as a nation weaker. The government calculates the personal savings rate as the difference between the after tax income and consumption of Americans. So they include not only retirement savings, but debt repayments, college savings, emergency fund savings, anything that was not spent.

Making paying off your debt (i.e. money you’ve already spent) count towards your savings is a practice fraught with questionable consequences. But useful for economists, and accountants alike, no doubt. The problem with it is that it hides reality behind a veil. Because debt repayments are not really savings at all; people are not free to spend what they put into paying off debt, on something else, like iPads, cars or trinkets. Not even on hookers or crack cocaine, for that matter.

For the vast majority of what is paid off in debt, there’s no such thing as free choices. People pay off debt because they must. Or, to look at it from another, wide lens, angle, Americans would have to stop servicing their debt payments if they want to ‘start spending’ again.

Going through the numbers from various sources, I can see that the US personal savings rate is presently some 5.8% of pre-tax income, and debt repayment is close to 10% of disposable -after tax – income. I’m still trying to make those stats rhyme. But no matter how you read and interpret them, it should be clear that debt repayments are a large part of ‘official’ savings. Even if they really shouldn’t be counted as such.

Of what remains in real savings, retirement/pension savings must necessarily be a substantial percentage, and it would be weird to call those things ‘saving like there is a tomorrow’, if only because they are about, well, tomorrow. But that seems to be the new normal: creating the impression that saving any money at all is somehow detrimental to the economy. A truly crazy notion, if you ask me. Let’s get back to Bloomberg’s Coy:

There are only two things you can do with a dollar, after all: spend it or save it. If you spend it, great—that’s money in someone else’s pocket.

In someone else’s pocket, but no longer in yours. Why would that be so great? It’s only great if that someone has added value to something by doing productive work, not if you simply swap paper assets.

If you save it, the financial system is supposed to recycle your dollar into productive investment with loans for new houses, factories, software, and research and development.

That notion of ‘the financial system is supposed to’ refers to theories such as those that Bernanke and his ilk ‘believe’ in. Theories that have no practical value. What is normal for many everyday Americans is crippling debt levels, and no such thing is recognized in these theories. After all, according to them, whatever amount of dollars you get in, you either spend or save them. And if you use them to pay off previously incurred debt, you’re supposedly actually saving, even though you no longer have possession of the money in any way, shape or sense, nor a choice of what to spend it on.

But if no one’s in the mood to invest more and interest rates are already as low as they can go (as they are in much of the world), the compulsion to save can sap demand and throw people out of work. For the U.S. economy, the good news is that the jump in the personal savings rate is probably no more than a blip. Three economists from Deutsche Bank Securities in New York explained why in a March 25 report called ‘U.S. Consumers: Still Shopping, Not Dropping’. While noting a “deceleration” in consumer spending, they wrote, “we think that concerns about the outlook for the consumer are overstated.” Their model of the U.S. economy predicts the savings rate will fall to 3% to 3.5% by 2017.

Oh sweet lord. Now a falling savings rate has become a beneficial thing, even when and where savings are very low. Not saving will allegedly save the economy. How did that happen? If we may presume that debt repayments will continue virtually unabated, and there seems to be little reason to think otherwise, this means that by 2017 there will be just about nothing saved at all anymore in America. Which means there’d be very little left of the ‘If you save it, the financial system is supposed to recycle your dollar into productive investment’.

The only ‘growth’ perspective America has left is to grow its debt levels continually, continuously and arguably exponentially.

Other economists have also concluded that the spending dropoff is temporary, which is why the slowdown in job growth, to just 126,000 in March, didn’t set off many alarm bells. “Consumer spending is starting to look more and more like a coiled spring,” says Guy Berger, U.S. economist at RBS Securities. One sign that consumers aren’t retrenching: On April 7 the Federal Reserve reported that consumer credit rose $15.5 billion in February, in line with the recent past.

They got deeper into debt, and this is a sign they’re not ‘retrenching’? A coiled spring? Really?

According to Deutsche Bank Securities, the first reason to think consumers will resume spending is that their incomes are rising. Annual growth in average hourly earnings has averaged about 2% since 2010, which isn’t great but does exceed inflation. With more people working as well, aggregate payroll outlays are up 4.9% from the past year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The rises in stock and home prices should make consumers more willing to live a little, say the Deutsche Bank authors. They calculate that households’ net worth is almost 6.5 times consumers’ disposable personal income. That’s the highest ratio since before the housing crash.

But that last bit is arguably all due to QE induced asset bubbles. Not an argument the author would make, I know, but nevertheless. Coincidentally, another Bloomberg article published the same day as the one we’re delving in here is called:Why Your Wages Could Be Depressed for a Lot Longer Than You Think. Perhaps the respective authors should have a sit down.

No question, the high savings rate depresses spending in the short run. Purchases of durable goods, from cars to couches, remain well below their 60-year average share of GDP. But all that saving helps consumers get their finances in order, which will allow them to satisfy pent-up demand for that sweet new Ford F-150.

No no no: they just paid off part of their debts. How can that possibly mean they’ll go out and get a new F-150? In real life, they spent their money instead of saving it. Either way, they don’t have it any longer to spend on a F-150. It would mean they need to get into new debt. On top of what they still have left over even AFTER paying down part of it.

Fed data show that financial obligations including debt service, rent, and auto leases are about their lowest in comparison to disposable income since 1981.

Hmm. According to Wikipedia, “Household debt as a % of disposable income rose from 68% in 1980 to a peak of 128% in 2007, prior to dropping to 112% by 2011.” It’s about 105% today. So that’s just a very weird statement. Someone’s wrong, very wrong, and I think I know who that would be. Maybe Peter Coy conveniently ignores mortgage payments when he talks about “financial obligations including debt service, rent, and auto leases”?!

When consumers are ready to borrow more, it won’t hurt that, according to the Fed’s survey of banks’ senior loan officers, banks are easing lending standards.

See? That’s what I said: they can only spend if they acquire new debt. They’re just getting rid of the last batch, and it’s going mighty slowly at that. Lest we forget, when debt as a percentage of income falls, that is due to quite an extent to people failing to make any debt payments at all, and losing their homes and cars. This is a dead economic model. This model is pining for the fjords.

These factors add up to an optimistic consumer.

Oh, c’mon. What is that statement based on? That ‘sky high’ savings rate that is really just poor slobs paying off what they can in debt repayments so they won’t get hit with even more fees and fines?

What I think these factors add up to, is a delusional reporter. There is no excess saving. It’s ludicrous. As far as people have any money at all, they’re using it to pay down their previously incurred debts. And that gets tallied into their savings rate by the government’s creative accounting methods. That’s all there is to the whole story. But it will, regardless, induce a few more poor souls to sign up for more mortgages and car loans and feel like happy American consumers on their way down into the maelstrom.

It’s sad, it really is. Maybe we should first of all stop referring to the American people as ‘consumers’. That might help.

By Raul Ilargi Meijer
Website: http://theautomaticearth.com (provides unique analysis of economics, finance, politics and social dynamics in the context of Complexity Theory)© 2015 Copyright Raul I Meijer - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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