Consumption Doesn’t Matter. Income Does.


The BEA reports that consumer spending increased sharply in March. Business owners are pleased:

Consumer spending rose in March at the fastest pace in nearly five years, providing fresh evidence that the U.S. economy gained strength with the arrival of spring. Personal consumption—spending on everything from electricity to sliced bread—surged a seasonally adjusted 0.9% from February, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That was its largest gain since August 2009.

….Paint sales are up from a year ago at Koopman Lumber Inc., a Whitinsville, Mass.-based chain of six hardware and lumber stores. “People are starting to spend some money on their houses. They’re saying, ‘We’ve put it off long enough,’ ” co-owner Tony Brookhouse said. “There are definitely signs of improvement.”

Maybe. But look: consumers can only spend money they have, and the only way for consumer spending to rise steadily is for personal incomes to rise steadily too. But that’s not happening. Here’s the chart since the beginning of the recovery:

There’s a small uptick in February and March, but it’s nothing special. A few months from now, if we’re still seeing a sustained increase in personal income, then we should expect a sustained increase in personal consumption too. But without that, this is just a bit of catch-up spending due to low levels in the previous few months.

Don’t pay attention to consumption. Pay attention to income. That’s what matters. A sustained recovery won’t be based on drawing down savings or cash-out refis or running up the credit card. It will be based on steadily rising incomes. So far we haven’t seen that.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

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ONE MORE QUICK THING:

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As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

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