Post Both Oversells And Undersells Consumption In Recovery

by: Dean Baker

A front page Washington Post article touted the 1.1 percent jump in retail sales reported for February. The piece said that the jump came in spite of the increase in the price of gas. This is only partly true, since more than a third of the increase in spending was due to increased spending on gas.

In the short term, higher gas prices are likely to be associated with increased spending, since people find it difficult to reduce their gas purchases. Over a longer period of time, they are likely to change their driving habits to save money.

More importantly, the February retail sales data follows three months in which the Commerce Department consumption expenditures data showed no real gain in spending. While the February retail sales detail indicate that the January data on consumption expenditures may be revised upward, when placed against the prior three months, the February gain does not look particularly impressive.

As the piece notes, it is also important to remember that this was an unusually mild February. The fact that the weather was relatively warm and there were few major snowstorms across the Northeast/Midwest meant that people were more likely to go shopping, go out for dinner and do house repairs that would typically be the case in February. This clearly gave some boost to retail sales for the month.

This piece also seriously understates the role of consumption thus far in the recovery when it tells readers:

Experts have been waiting for consumers to open their wallets because they are the backbone of the economy, accounting for roughly two-thirds of gross domestic product.

Actually experts know that consumption has been surprisingly strong thus far in the recovery. The savings rate has been under 5.0 percent for the last three quarters. Historically the savings rate had averaged more than 8.0 percent. It fell sharply in the last two decades as the wealth created by the stock and housing bubbles led people to spend a much larger share of their income.

With this wealth largely eliminated by the collapse of these bubbles it would be reasonable to expect the saving rate to return to its historic level or possibly even to rise above it, as the huge baby boom cohorts approach retirement with almost no assets. The fact that the savings rate has remained well below its historic average tells experts that consumers are spending at a surprisingly strong rate which may not be sustained indefinitely.