Economy Watch: Mixed Signals Surround Consumer Spending

Recent metrics examining the direction of consumer spending this year have produced mixed results, as U.S. and global economic uncertainty remains strong.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Can American consumers sustain or even increase their pace of retail spending and thus support the health of the retail property market? Increases in retail spending have been coming in at a middling clip recently, perhaps as a function of nearly stagnant wages. Other metrics that point to the direction of consumer spending are also coming in with mixed results.

Household debt increased moderately and repayment rates improved during the last three months of 2015, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, which was released recently. The $51 billion increase put total household indebtedness at $12.12 trillion as of the end of last year, the report noted. Also, only 5.4 percent of outstanding debt was in some stage of delinquency, the lowest rate since the second quarter of 2007—which points to better household financial health, and thus consumers who are better able to spend.

Modest aggregate debt growth was partly attributable to flat mortgage balances. Balances on home equity lines of credit continued a decline that began more than four years ago, falling last quarter by $5 billion. By contrast, auto debt, which has steadily advanced every quarter since mid-2011, increased again by $19 billion.

A less positive metric is the most recent University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index, which came in at 90.7 in mid-February, down from 92.0 at the end of January. Survey Chief Economist Richard Curtin posited that the decline was due to a less favorable outlook for the economy during the year ahead, while longer-term prospects for the national economy remained unchanged at favorable levels.

While slowing economic growth was anticipated to slightly lessen the pace of job and wage gains, consumers viewed their personal financial situations somewhat more favorably due to the expectation that the inflation rate would remain low for a considerable period of time, according to Curtin. Gas prices have contributed considerably to that notion, since they’re the lowest they’ve been in a good many years.

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