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Saturday, October 29, 2005

3.8% GDP Growth Diddly Squat to Consumers

The Associated Press's Ron Fournier writes,

The economy has been a baffling issue to Bush and his team. They have not figured out how to convince the public that the economy is doing as well as experts say. It's a hard sell when pension funds are going bankrupt, health care costs and gasoline prices are soaring and jobs are being shipped overseas.

That is, policymakers wonder why even with 3.8% GDP growth are consumers still rather glum. The US economy isn't doing nearly as well as the GDP figure indicates, and consumers should be worried:

(1) Wealth redistribution is going the wrong way - primarily because of misguided income tax, estate tax and capital gains policies, money is going from the pockets of those with less to those with more. Add in surging energy costs which have similar redistribution effects and you can see why Joe Consumer isn't happy.

(2) Consumers are getting squeezed no matter what - do the math...falling incomes and greater expenditures doesn't sound like a recipe for cheerful consumers. Now, the happy talk people might say that the evidence shows consumers are still spending like crazy, so don't worry,

I'll offer two counterarguments, though I suspect there are many more. First, consumers might be loading up on debt now in anticipation of higher interest rates. If the Fed has telegraphed this point clearly, then it would seem to be a "logical" thing to do now to buy flat screen TVs and take out mortgages on dream homes before interest rates head north. The principle is the same as the ridiculous "Employee Discount" promotion that automakers used to shoot themselves in the feet. Consumers are bringing expenditures forward to take advantage of current favorable conditions, so why buy tomorrow when things aren't as favorable? We'll see.

Second, consumers have no real choice in many instances. At the end of the day, you still need to put food on the table, put gas in the car and all that stuff. Sure, they're able to stomach higher prices for a while, but just how much consumer dissavings can they sustain? The tougher bankruptcy laws (passed at the behest of the finance industry) have definitely lowered the pain threshold for consumers, and we're likely to see fallout in the coming months.

(3) Debt needs to be paid - this might be ridiculously obvious, but the free lunch economists seem to ignore this point altogether. Sure you can borrow a lot now at historically low interest rates, but where will you get the money to pay it off in the future while wages are stagnant and prices are rising? Dissavings can only get you so far, and that margin of safety is rapidly shrinking.

(4) GDP is an imperfect measure of economic progress - it hides the deleterious effects of debt in many instances. So, you can induce spending to the high heavens in vain pursuits like housing and unlimited consumerism, but of course it misses the earlier point. You can have your cake and eat it too at the moment, but all debts must be paid in full when tomorrow comes, and GDP doesn't account for that.

Posted by Emmanuel |

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