NEW YORK (AP) One after another, analysts chant the same old liturgy that the economy will rise again when consumers resume spending in their enthusiastic, old-fashioned way.
Yes, but when?
It presents a conundrum. Consumers will spend when they have the money and enthusiasm for buying, both of which are currently in limited supply. And, of course, they wont have either unless the economy improves.
The most obvious deterrent to spending is that consumers have been running a savings rate below zero over much of the past year, borrowing here and there (home equity, stocks, credit cards) to pay for things.
Their 401(k) and other savings and investing plans most likely have shrunk. Credit delinquencies have risen. The job market, though still incredibly strong, has been weakening. Confidence is a bit shaken.
It all adds up to a show me attitude, one in which consumers are likely to bide their time and look instead for other areas of the economy to step into a leadership role. Badly bitten, consumers do learn.
The signs of consumer resistance are out there to be observed if one chooses to view them. Six Federal Reserve interest rate cuts, for example, havent stirred much action. And those ingenious electronic gadgets people used to think they couldnt do without are selling poorly.
Amazing discounts, bargain-basement sales and low or no-cost financing no longer excite customers. Why, the latest University of Michigan survey indicated consumers want carmakers to lower their low-low rates even more.
True, cars and homes have been selling well in fact, at record or near-record highs but these are exceptions, benefitting to a rear degree from easy financing terms. You cant say the same about computer sales.
The bulge in car and home sales might also be at the expense of tomorrow. As so often happens, a sales spurt one year can mean a glut the next. And a cautious consumer attitude reinforces the possibility.
Consumers can retrench, and they could remain in the mood for it.
Theyve learned that innovative technology products are great to have but are not necessities. More durable, todays cars can generally be held another year rather than traded in. Local travel and entertainment can be subbed for distant, costly fare. Saving might be seen as beating stocks.
There are suspicions to be overcome.
In stocks, the suspicions involve the salesman posing as adviser and the analyst hiding divided loyalties, and corporate officials not fully aware of their companys finances or misinforming the public about them.
In general merchandizing, there are consumer concerns that quality, and service and guarantee are mere words, the kind easily thrown around when times are good and customers wait in line to spend.
These are big obstacles for sellers. With the past few years being exceptions, the U.S. economy has been a buyers market for two decades, and to some extent all the way back to the consumer revolt of the 1960s.
Consumers have learned much over the past couple of years, the process often accompanied by pain too intense to forget. They might still lead an economic expansion, but it likely will be in their own good time.
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