Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Will The Consumer Ever Come Back?

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Above is a chart of the US savings rate. Notice its been declining for the last 20 years or so until it eventually started hovering around 0% and that it has recently spiked up. There are some people who are now arguing the consumer is retrenching completely; meaning, the consumer will no longer be the engine of growth. There are two strong fundamental reasons that support this conclusion.

1.) First, the best reading of job growth during the last expansion is for a total of approximately 8.2 million. In other words, job growth was extremely weak. In addition, we've seen fast rates of job loss over the last year along with real estate and stock market collapses. In other words, the macro environment is such that consumers may be paying a lot of attention to their bottom line and thinking, "I don't need to buy that right now."

2.) Total household debt outstanding has increased from 47% of GDP in 1981 to 96% of GDP in the third quarter of 2008. While there is no bright line in economics that says "above this level the household debt/GDP ratio is bad" I feel fairly certain in saying that when there is almost as much household debt as there is GDP in an economy there are serious problems. The point is the possibility that we are at a saturation level with household debt is pretty high. This leads to the conclusion that the consumer will start to pay his debt down leading to lower consumer spending.