EVERYTHING IS GOING SWIMMINGLY: The U.S. Consumer Is Starting to Freak Out.
The engine of the U.S. economy—consumer spending—is starting to sputter.
Retail purchases have fallen in three of the past four months. Spending on services, including rent, haircuts and the bulk of bills, was flat in December, after adjusting for inflation, the worst monthly reading in nearly a year. Sales of existing homes in the U.S. fell last year to their lowest level since 2014 as mortgage rates rose. The auto industry posted its worst sales year in more than a decade.
It’s a stark turnaround from the second half of 2020, when Americans lifted the economy out of a pandemic downturn, helping the U.S. avoid what many economists worried would be a prolonged slump. Consumers snapped up exercise bikes, televisions and laptop computers for schoolchildren during lockdowns. When restrictions were lifted, they rushed back to their favorite restaurants and travel destinations.
And they kept spending, helped by government stimulus, flush savings accounts and cheap credit, even as inflation picked up. Faced with four-decade-high inflation last year, Americans outspent it. Through most of 2022, consumer spending growth exceeded price increases by about 2 percentage points.
Now the forces that helped keep spending high are unwinding, while inflation remains elevated.
“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”