KEY DATA: Real Consumption: +0.1%; Real Disposable Income: +0.3%; Inflation: +0.1%; Prices less Food and Energy: +0.2%/ Claims: -2,000
IN A NUTSHELL: “Consumers may have slowed their drive to empty their wallets in October, but if the Black Weekend is any indicator, they were just saving up for the real deals.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Having just gotten through what looks like a massive Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, news that consumers didn’t go out and shop ‘till they dropped in October was not necessarily something to worry about. Yes, households didn’t keep up the pace, but after the huge increase in spending in September, that was not a great surprise. After splurging on vehicles in September, sales ebbed, though not significantly. In contrast, consumption of services was up strongly and demand for nondurable goods rose at a decent pace. Without any additional increase, real, or inflation-adjusted consumption is already rising at a 1.7% pace so far this quarter. It looks like households will add to growth at a moderate, though not spectacular rate this quarter.
Going forward, there remain questions about the ability of households to lead the way. Disposable income was up solidly in October, but it didn’t come from wage gains, which rose only moderately, at best. Most of that increase was largely due to hiring, as hourly wage increases continue to be minimal. Still, after-tax income did increase faster than spending so the savings rate edged upward. At 3.2%, it is still too low.
As for the labor market, firms are not giving out lots of pink slips. Jobless claims declined a touch last week and the level, as usual, is quite low.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Solid consumer confidence, massive job openings and little fear of layoffs is likely to translate into a very merry holiday season for retailers of all types. The early data point to a very big weekend of sales and that is good news for the economy. But with Cyber Monday lasting about six weeks and Black Friday starting in September, it is hard to know what the last few weeks of the shopping season will bring. We need the consumer to step up. Some of the good growth we have seen was driven by hurricane replacement and that is just not sustainable. With the savings rate at a level not seen except just before the start of the last two recessions, and with wage gains disappointing, there is only so much the consumer can do to drive growth forward. And if the Accounting Principals survey is any indicator, workers shouldn’t expect end of year bonuses, which firms seem to be doing away with. About the only thing saving consumers is that inflation is still low and it is not accelerating. As for the businesses taking up the slack, that too is open to debate. The tax bills making their way through Congress do little to incentivize productivity enhancing investment, so don’t expect capital spending to surge, no matter what the politicians tell us. So, let’s enjoy all the bargains we got this past week, but keep in mind that growth requires us to spend more and more and more and without the funds to do that, consumers are not likely do that.