Personal Consumption Retreats, Again

by: James Picerno

The main point of optimism in yesterday's first reading of Q1 GDP is the jump in consumer spending. But as today's update on personal income and expenditures for March reminds, there's still quite a bit of uncertainty left as to whether consumption is truly on the mend.

Much of what registered as increased consumer spending in this year's first quarter came in January. A convincing follow-through still awaits. As our chart below shows, the bump just ahead of March 2009 was a first-of-the-year rise in both disposable income and personal consumption spending. It was a welcome reprieve from the crushing setback in late 2008. But the trend is fading and last month's consumption dropped relative to February. Disposable income, meanwhile, was flat in March.

The main question is whether the realities of the broader economic climate are finally weighing on American households as they ponder the toxic combination of falling housing values, fewer jobs, higher unemployment and burdensome debt levels built up over the years. The government's massive stimulus efforts over the past year have helped slow the tide, but the correction in consumption and consumer attitudes will roll on.

Adding to the challenge is the recent uptick in the 10-year yield. The Fed has been working overtime in trying to keep long rates low, which is to say below 3%. But now Mr. Market is rebelling. The 10-year closed above 3% for the third day running yesterday. That's the first time it's run above that level since the Fed announced on March 18 that it would buy long-dated Treasuries outright in order to keep rates low. Immediately following the news, the 10-year yield dropped by an extraordinarily steep 50 basis points to around 2.5%. Now the yield's above 3%. And the higher rates come at a time with little or no worries about inflation.

Of course, one could argue that the apparent topping out in new jobless claims suggests that the recession may be at or near a trough. We've suggested as much recently, including here, and our reasoning is here. And today's update on new filings for jobless benefits offers a fresh datapoint to argue that the business cycle may have bottomed.

But we must distinguish between a bottom to the recession and the renewal of economic growth. If we have an "L" recession, the bottom could last qiute a bit longer than the crowd expects. All the more so given the depth and magnitude of the current downturn.

In short, there's reason for optimism and its counterpart. Deciding which one has the upper hand will still take more time.