4 Reasons Why the Consumer (and the Economy) Are Still in Limbo

Consumer spending helps fuel the economy, but, as Russ explains, still sluggish spending continues to limit growth.

Economic readings have been firm lately, with one major exception: retail activity. Retail sales continue to disappoint relative to expectations, as we saw again in August. While Hurricane Harvey certainly had a negative impact, the unfortunate truth is that retail sales have been decelerating since January.

Which raises the question: Why should spending slow when unemployment is at a cyclical low and confidence close to a cyclical high? Here are four potential reasons:

Wage growth has been conspicuously absent

Despite historically low unemployment, wage growth is not accelerating as the textbooks suggest it should (see the accompanying chart). Although there are a number of secular factors impacting the numbers—not the least of which is the retirement of lots of relatively well paid baby boomers—the reality remains that wages are not providing the tailwind many had expected.

U.S. wage tracker


Auto sales have peaked

After years of stellar sales on the back of historically low interest rates, U.S. auto sales have been decelerating for the better part of the past two years. This is important as auto sales, including parts, comprise roughly 20% of overall retail sales. August’s sales numbers, a shade above 16 million annualized, were the lowest since early 2014.

The savings rate is already low

One of the defining characteristics of the multi-decade consumer boom was a consistent trend towards lower savings. While that trend temporarily reversed following the financial crisis, by late 2016 the savings rate was once again closing in on 3%, not far from last decade’s low. Savings can theoretically fall further, but at this point in the cycle consumers may need to take a breather.