Inflation Fears Pose a Risk to Supercharged American Consumer
(Bloomberg) — The recent spike in inflation risks denting the turbocharged spending growth that has fueled the U.S. economic recovery during the pandemic — at least in the short term.
That’s the conclusion some economists drew from the unexpected slump in consumer sentiment reported Friday, driven primarily by fears about surging prices. A drop in early November may foretell a moderation in consumption in the coming months.
“In the near term, shortages and prices should restrain inflation-adjusted spending,” Bloomberg economist Eliza Winger said in a note. “Looking ahead, the risk is outsize, persistent price rises feed into the consumer-inflation psyche.”
The University of Michigan’s sentiment measure dropped this month, trailing all forecasts. And the report showed that buying conditions for household goods also deteriorated sharply, falling to the second-lowest reading in data back to 1978.
One in four respondents in the survey said inflation had reduced their living standards, with more consumers noting rising prices for homes, vehicles and durable goods. That’s a notable change from the previous month, when one in five mentioned a deterioration in living standards.
“With views of rising inflation and pessimistic outlooks on finances, it’s of little surprise that buying conditions tumbled in early November,” Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) & Co. economists said in a note. “Consumer spending has already begun to transition from goods back to services, but at face value these perceptions are concerning for the outlook.”
Research published in early October argued that declining consumer expectations suggest the economy is in recession even though employment and wage growth indicate otherwise.
While wages are increasing at a record pace as companies work to attract new employees, inflation is eroding buying power. Inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings in October were 1.2% lower than a year earlier.
“Businesses have been able to stave off a hit to their profits by passing higher input costs along to consumers,” the Wells Fargo economists said in their note. But they “may soon be met with resistance given the pessimistic move in consumers’ views of their household finances.”
Still, many American households remain awash with cash from savings accumulated during the pandemic. Even as pandemic aid has expired and prices are rising, there’s a lot of pent-up demand ahead of the holiday season, especially from higher-income families.
“We would be surprised if this dip in confidence is followed by softening spending, which ultimately is what matters,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in a note.
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