Waiting for the 'Other Shoe' to Drop as Consumers Turn Defensive

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Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: James Picerno

The economy managed to grow slightly in this year's first quarter, the government reported yesterday. GDP rose by an annualized 0.6% in this year's first three months, matching the growth rate in Q4 2007. Given all the recession anxiety of late, that's a victory of sorts. But this is no time for celebrating. As a closer reading of Wednesday's GDP report shows, consumers are turning defensive in their spending habits in a big way.

Personal consumption expenditures [PCE] - which represent about 72% of total GDP - rose by a meager 1.0% (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter--down from 2.3% in Q4 2007. That's the lowest pace since Q2 2001, which also witnessed a 1.0% expansion. The reason for the current slowdown: two of PCE's three major components posted declines in the first quarter. Spending on durable goods was particularly hard hit, dropping by a hefty 6.1%, which is the first case of red ink here since 2005. Nondurable goods also slipped in Q1, falling 1.3%. This marks only the fourth instance in the past 15 years that nondurable goods spending contracted in a quarterly reading.

The lone source of consumer spending salvation came via services expenditures; the only member of the three broad gauges that define consumer spending that posted a gain in Q1. Fortunately, services spending posted a healthy 3.4% jump. But that only reminds that consumer spending overall would be shrinking if it wasn't for the resilience in services.

Nonetheless, no one should misunderstand what's unfolding: Joe Sixpack's sentiment to buy, buy, buy has taken a hefty blow, at least for the moment. And no wonder: prices are soaring for basic staples, i.e., energy and food. Meanwhile, the family home is worth quite a bit less, and Joe's investment portfolio probably suffers a similar discounting. Logic suggests that saving more and spending less is eminently reasonable at this juncture. The only question now: How long will the newly defensive sentiment last?

Clearly, it's premature to say that the worst of the economy's downshifting is past. Anecdotal evidence for the second quarter, which is barely a month old, suggests that the correcting process is still underway. Perhaps May and June will deliver better news, perhaps not. But based on the numbers presented in today's GDP update, combined with an objective survey of finance and economic conditions in the month of April, there's still a case for staying cautious and defensive in one's investment strategy. The proverbial "other shoe," it seems, is in the process of dropping as we write.