Household income in the U.S. is weakening as the influence of the government’s stimulus plan wanes, prompting economists, Federal Reserve officials and a Nobel laureate to warn that consumer spending may struggle.
“Consumers have started to change their behavior and they are going to save more,” said Richard Berner, co-head of global economics at Morgan Stanley in New York and a former researcher at the Fed. “You have pressure on wages, you have employment still declining.”
Wages and salaries, which drive recoveries in spending, fell 4.7 percent in the 12 months through June, the biggest drop since records began in 1960, according to Commerce Department figures released yesterday. The Obama administration’s tax cuts, extended jobless benefits and a one-time Social Security bonus have helped mask the damage done by the worst employment slump since the Great Depression.
Personal incomes, which include interest income, dividends, rents and other payments as well as wages, tumbled 1.3 percent in June, more than forecast and the biggest drop in four years, yesterday’s Commerce report showed. Excluding the effects of the stimulus plan, June incomes would have dropped 0.1 percent after no change in May, according to the report. In May, one-time additional payments to Social Security recipients boosted incomes 1.3 percent.
One of every 10 American workers will be without a job by early 2010, economists project, shaking the confidence of those still on payrolls and discouraging spending. It may take as long as 15 years for consumers to fully repair finances battered by the decline in home values, stocks and employment, said Edmund Phelps, winner of the Nobel prize in economics in 2006.
Shrinking Net Worth
Decreasing pay is not the only hurdle for consumers. Plunging home prices and stocks reduced household net worth by a record $13.9 trillion from the third quarter of 2007 through this year’s first quarter, according to figures from the Fed.
“Households are going to have to do an awful lot of rebuilding of their wealth,” Phelps, a professor at Columbia University in New York, said this week in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “Even if that rebuilding goes on at a pretty good clip, it will take 12 or 15 years for households to get to the wealth level that they had several years ago. Consumer demand is going to take a long time to rebuild to normal levels.”
In the second half, incomes and spending will be hurt by the loss of transitory factors such as lower fuel prices, decreased tax rates and the one-time payment to retirees, William Dudley, president of the Fed Bank of New York, said in a speech last week.
“Consumer spending is unlikely to rise much faster than income” because of the need to boost savings, he said. “Weak income growth will be an effective constraint on the pace of consumer spending.”
Companies continue to trim expenses, threatening further cuts in pay and benefits. Tenneco Inc., the world’s largest maker of vehicle-exhaust systems, temporarily lowered pay and hours worked to reduce labor costs by 10 percent. Earlier this year, the Lake Forest, Illinois-based company suspended contributions to employees’ 401(k) retirement accounts and cut pay for the top 50 executives.
Government assistance such as the “cash-for-clunkers” program will help postpone the inevitable increase in savings and slowdown in spending as more baby boomers approach retirement, said David Rosenberg, chief economist at Gluskin Sheff & Associates Inc. in Toronto.
“Spending is in desperate need of gimmicks like cash-for- clunkers in order to grow on a short-term basis,” he said.
Lifting Auto Sales
The program, which offers as much as $4,500 for trading in older, less fuel-efficient cars, ran through its $1 billion fund in about a week, and Congress is considering adding $2 billion. Auto industry data this week showed sales jumped to an 11.3 million annual pace last month, the highest level since September.
Mounting joblessness is among reasons that economists such as Rosenberg say will prompt Americans to save more. Unemployment, already at a 26-year high of 9.5 percent in June, may top 10 percent by early next year, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg last month.
Economists estimate that a Labor Department report at the end of the week will show employers cut an additional 328,000 workers from payrolls in July. That would bring the total loss of jobs since the recession began in December 2007 to 6.8 million.
The savings rate in June fell to 4.6 percent as incomes dropped, yesterday’s Commerce Department report showed. The rate, which reached a 14-year high of 6.2 percent the previous month, is likely to keep climbing, Rosenberg said. A rate as high as 15 percent can’t be ruled out, he said.
“This is a different consumer than we had in the past 20 years,” Rosenberg said. “People are going to increasingly be putting more money into cookie jars, rather than into buying more cookie jars.”
How much deleveraging?
Since the start of the U.S. recession in December 2007, household leverage has declined. It currently stands at about 130% of disposable income. How much further will the deleveraging process go? In addition to factors governing the supply and demand for debt, the answer will depend on the future growth trajectory of the U.S. economy. While it’s true that Japanese firms and U.S. households may differ in important ways regarding decisions about paying down debt, the Japanese experience provides a recent example of a significant deleveraging episode that took place in the aftermath of a major real estate bubble and is useful as a benchmark.
The Japanese stock market bubble burst in late 1989, followed soon after by the bursting of the real estate bubble in early 1991. Nearly 20 years later, stock and commercial real estate prices remain more than 70% below their peaks, while residential land prices are more than 40% below their peak.
Figure 3 compares Japan’s nonfinancial corporate sector with the U.S. household sector over 10-year periods before and after the leverage-ratio peaks. In both countries, leverage ratios rose rapidly in the years before the peak.
After Japan’s bubbles burst, private nonfinancial firms undertook a massive deleveraging, reducing their collective debt-to-GDP ratio from 125% in 1991 to 95% in 2001. By reducing spending on investment, the firms changed from being net borrowers to net savers. If U.S. households were to undertake a similar deleveraging, their collective debt-to-income ratio would need to drop to around 100% by year-end 2018, returning to the level that prevailed in 2002.