NAROFF ECONOMIC ADVISORS, Inc.
Joel L. Naroff
President and Chief Economist
INDICATOR: February Income and Consumption
KEY DATA: Consumption: +0.7%; Disposable Personal Income: +0.3%; Prices: +0.4%
IN A NUTSHELL: “Consumers opened their wallets up but they also had to pay a lot more for their purchases.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Households seemed to be willing to brave the cold and snow and generally bad weather in February to visit their local malls. Spending rose solidly as people bought lots of soft goods and big-ticket items. They are still being cautious on buying services as those are goods they can easily do without. But while the consumption numbers look real strong, a lot of the money coming out of households’ pockets went to pay for rising prices. The Fed’s key inflation indicator jumped and even excluding food and energy it was up at a pace that if continued, would not make the FOMC members happy. Adjusting for inflation, spending was decent but not spectacular. Can consumers pay for all those goods? Well, maybe. Disposable personal income, which adjusts for taxes, rose at a somewhat disappointing pace. Wages and salaries increases were limited and while that may help corporate earnings, it doesn’t do much for spending power. What is of real concern is that incomes rose less than prices. Thus, household spending power actually declined. That does not bode well for economic growth if it keeps up. Indeed, so far this quarter, consumption is growing at a modest pace and it looks like first quarter growth could be as weak as I have feared. The savings rate was just below 6%, a rate similar to what we have seen for the last two years.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: There is a concept in economics called the “fallacy of composition”. Basically, it says that what is good for an individual may not be good for the whole. If a business restrains wage growth, that will help its profitability. However, if all companies do the same, then income gains are limited. As a consequence, demand grows slowly and so do profits. Much of the strong earnings we have seen coming from large companies is due to international activities so don’t assume that the increases in the equity markets imply strong domestic growth. Main Street and Wall Street are largely disconnected right now. While rising wealth does help, ultimately for this economy to grow strongly we need better income growth. Whether that comes from more hiring or higher wages or a combination of the two, it needs to happen. For the Fed members, this was an uncomfortable report. Spending power is declining as inflation is rising. With growth still disappointing, there is little the Fed can do in that scenario, i.e., it cannot raise rates so slow inflation or add more liquidity to raise growth. As for investors, inflation is not yet a major problem. But it is moving upward so it should not be viewed as being tame, no matter the Fed Chairman may publicly claim.
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