The latest read on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 5.2% real growth suggests the US economy soared in the third quarter. As momentum matters, this suggests the next quarter and the next will also be strong. One can hope, but a great downshift is far more likely.
For starters, it’s likely the economy was nowhere near as strong as the headline suggests. GDP gets all the love in the press, but Gross Domestic Income (GDI) is an equally valid measure. If we could measure these things precisely, they would always equate. GDI came in at 1.5%, much lower than GDP’s 5.2%.
Much the same data conflict arises in the jobs figures. According to the press fave employers’ survey, the economy created about 200 thousand jobs monthly since May. But the equally valid household survey has been flat over the same period. Again, that’s a big difference over an extended period between equally valid measures of the labor market.
One measure strong; one weak. Secret sauce clue: When major economic indicators send very different signals, it usually means the economy is at a turning point.
Why now? First, because the American consumer, that great engine representing about two-thirds of GDP, is running low on gas. The hoard of excess saving built up in years past is now mostly gone. LendingClub reports 60% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, which means they’ve little to fall back on and little room for error or bad luck.
The New York Fed confirms the consumer’s stretched thin, reporting that credit card debt last year displayed “the largest such increase since the beginning of our time series in 1999.” Credit card balances shoot up when savings go down and the checking account’s running dry. The Fed also reports the share of newly delinquent credit card users is the highest in about a decade and on an upward trend.
Going into the pandemic the Fed threw the sink at sustaining the economy, one consequence of which was high inflation. Coming out of the pandemic, the Fed finally woke up to inflation’s gathering momentum. The consequent good news is that inflation is trending downward.
The problem for the American consumer is the damage that inflation has already done. When inflation shot up in 2021 and 2022, nominal wages didn’t. Families took a huge hit in what they could afford and the gap remains. To preserve their standard of living, they resorted to spending down their past savings and spending up their credit card balances.
The natural consequence of stressed consumers is a downshift in spending. The National Retail Federation reports that core retail sales have been essentially flat for two months straight. Retailers report consumers are resisting price increases, hesitating to pay full price, and are increasingly looking for discounts and promotions. The obvious reaction to financial insecurity is to cut back; think cutting out the Rib-Eye at Whole Foods for hamburger from Aldi.
A weakening of consumer spending would occur against a shaky background elsewhere. Housing has been flat or down for two years now. Shipments and new orders both suggest the manufacturing sector is weak. If the consumer really is about out of gas, then the economy could see a marked downshift. And now we come full circle back to the Fed, which put us on this rollercoaster with its kitchen sink response to the pandemic.
The Fed is standing pat with its restrictive policies even as inflation slows and will likely do so for many months. Quite reasonably, before relaxing the Fed wants to be sure inflation continues toward its 2% goal rather than re-igniting. But standing pat while inflation slows means Fed policy is actually becoming steadily more restrictive. Today’s tapping becomes tomorrow’s stomping on the brakes, and thus is likely to generate the great 2024 downshift.
JD Foster is the former chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget and former chief economist and senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He now resides in relative freedom in the hills of Idaho.
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