U.S. economic focus on jobs, consumer demand

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Oct. 22, 2012 at 10:20 AM
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Suddenly, the buzzword in the financial district is demand, but maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The buzzword was jobs -- still is. But some market analysts have been encouraged by the lower unemployment rate and figured it is is time to look again at the embers of commerce, the consumers, and see if they are ready to start spending again.

The data that is most encouraging comes from the housing market, where there have been slow and steady gains on a sustained basis for at least six months.

The percentage of home sales made of bank-seized properties is dropping. The foreclosure market has slogged through the bottleneck created by the "robo-signing" scandal of 2010 in which banks tried to rush foreclosures through the court system and were accused of cheating homeowners of due process.

That derailed foreclosures for a while. Now, they are back on track, says RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure marketplace.

The National Association of Realtors said existing home sales slipped in September, but that appears to be a minor bump in the road. On an annual basis, sales rose for the seventh consecutive month, the longest streak since November 2005 to May 2006.

The inventory of existing homes on the market fell 3.3 percent in August, which has helped prop up prices. The inventory is down to a 5.9-month supply at the current rate of sales. A year earlier, September 2011, there was a significantly higher 9.5-month supply of existing homes on the market.

Auto sales show the consumer still willing to spend, but the annual rate of sales in September was 14.9 million vehicles, which leaves room for improvement, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The latest retail figures showed sales rose 1.1 percent August to September, a higher-than-expectations figure given the understanding that the lower unemployment rate is a misleading figure because more people have given up looking for work in recent months than have found jobs.

Nevertheless, sales were up 4.8 percent in the third quarter compared to the same period of 2011, which takes out some of the possibility that September's gain was a fluke. Retail for the month was up 5.4 percent from September 2011.

Moreover, the business community loves to put U.S. consumers on the analytical couch and probe deeper into their hearts and minds, and the current thinking is that the average consumer is generally shell-shocked. Pensions evaporated, jobs lost, homes taken away -- headlines in 2008 spoke to the shoreline littered with abandoned yachts stripped of identification numbers that the wealthy could no longer afford.

How much did that change consumers in the long run? The classic anecdote is the upswing in sales of gas guzzlers within months of the price of gasoline hitting record highs. Let's not get too worried. The U.S. consumer always comes back, eventually.

But the next level of spending is debt. Spending is one thing. Borrowing to spend is, well, that's a commitment. A consumer willing to pay for the privilege of spending -- that's a chip off the old block.

But that consumer is not back. The U.S. Federal Reserve said the average household spends less than 16 percent of its income after taxes on debt and rent, the smallest combined debt and rent load since 1984.

The only category of consumer debt that has risen during the recovery is student loans, owing to the number of unemployed workers returning to school to upgrade their skills.

Average credit card balances are down and the number of credit card accounts has dropped from 600 million in 2008 to 470 million now, Moody's Analytics reports.

There must be a hierarchy of spending based on need: Groceries, rent, clothing, a mortgage, tuition. Those yachts are somewhere on the spectrum -- down the line.

Consider the holiday shopping season a party in celebration of demand. How big a party? We'll know after the election. We'll know after Christmas.

In international markets Monday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan was flat, up 0.09 percent and the Shanghai composite index in China gained 0.21 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong added 0.68 percent and the Sensex in India rose 0.59 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia slipped 0.66 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain was down 0.03 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany lost 0.23 percent. The CAC 40 in France was flat, up 0.01percent, and the Stoxx Europe 600 was off 0.04 percent.

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