By Julie Strickland
Americans went shopping last month despite having little extra cash in their wallets.
Spending for the month of February saw its greatest boost in seven months, jumping from a 0.4 percent rise in January to 0.8 percent in February, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. But salaries and wages didn’t keep pace, increasing only 0.2 percent. Further reflecting the urge to get out and spend, Americans also loosened their grip on personal savings. Personal saving as a percentage of disposable income was 3.7 in February, compared with 4.3 percent in January.
It’s a contradictory picture. Modest job gains have increased consumer confidence, and an unseasonably warm winter is motivating consumers to get out and spend when they’d normally feel inclined to stay home and avoid bitter temperatures.
Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott, said that the unusual weather has spurred consumer confidence.
“There is a spring in the step of people because they aren’t bunkered down shoveling their driveways,” Luschini said.
But the amount of money flowing into employee pockets isn’t matching their behavior.
The Labor Department reported 227,000 new jobs last month, but many were in low-wage jobs in manufacturing, leisure and hospitality. And as more people gain jobs, there is an overall decline in transfers such as unemployment benefits. This means that many consumers actually have less to spend than they did when they were employed.
In terms of salaries, employees are at a disadvantage in a market flooded with job seekers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there are 12.8 million unemployed Americans in its most recent Employee Situation Summary. In that environment, nailing down a job is what’s most important. The specifics of salary and wages come second.
“The main reason wage growth is soft is that most individuals have very little bargaining power with their employers,” said Jeremy Lawson, a senior U.S. economist with BNP Paribas. “That’s probably the dominant factor with stagnant income growth.”
With no significant infusion of cash, consumers are instead turning to credit to finance their spending. Household debt reached a total of $2.5 trillion in January, according to the Federal Reserve’s consumer credit report. And if spending outpaces income growth in the months ahead, consumer debt is likely to continue its climb.
Dan Alpert, a managing partner at Westwood Capital, said he thinks this is a worrying sign.
“When the increase in consumer spending is coming from an increase in debt, it’s pretty disturbing,” Alpert said. “I see consumers indebting themselves further just to pay the bills.”
Too much spending backed by credit will only temporarily plug an economic hole–consumers won’t be able to keep it up if they don’t have real funds at their disposal. And as the consumer goes, so goes the economy.
Businesses will feel the pinch if their customers reach the point of having stretched their money too far. The strain could go either way for job seekers. If companies begin seeing an influx of hires as a way to revive revenues, the job market could turn more hospitable. But if slowing profits inspire conservatism on the hiring front, employers could buckle down and try to make do with the minimum.
The minimum on all fronts would spell disappointment for an economic rebound.