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The Dark Side of Consumers Tilting Toward Consumption
Josh Wright, Chief Economist | Economist Corner
Tuesday, Jan 30, 2018

The U.S. economy is running a little hot these days, and while that's an outcome a lot of policymakers have been justifiably striving for, there are already signs of how that could eventually get us all into trouble. The latest data on consumer income and spending indicate that the personal saving rate has been declining and now has fallen below the growth rate in consumer spending. These are two different kinds of rates, but their relationship tends to vary with the business cycle, with saving declining in the latter stages of the expansionary period. Slower saving is a testament to the strength of the job market and overall consumer confidence, but it raises concerns about the sustainability of consumer spending.

The last time consumer saving was this low was in late 2007, as the housing boom's record cash-out refinancings undermined the national household balance sheet. That comparison sounds scary, but we don't need to worry about that history repeating itself just yet. The U.S. housing market and consumer balance sheets have come a long way since then -- to say nothing of the changes in bank balance sheets, lending standards, and overall financial regulations. There are a lot of ways to show the differences between 2007 and 2018, but here's one of the most dramatic (pointed out by Logan Mohtashami).

In other words, the immediate concern is the consumer income statement, rather than the consumer balance sheet. Although rising credit card balances and high student loan debts are worrisome, they're not currently near the scale of the housing debt that led to the Global Financial Crisis.

Ultimately, none of this looks like a problem in the near term, but with rates on the rise and the U.S. economic expansion reaching its third-longest duration since World War II, it pays to keep an eye on emerging vulnerabilities.

about the author

As chief economist at iCIMS, an industry-leading provider of talent acquisition software, Josh Wright leads a team of data scientists in analyzing emerging trends in the U.S. labor market