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Economic Insights

Slow income growth and higher tax burdens for U.S. consumers likely will continue to restrain spending in the largest sector of the economy.

The past two discussions in this space argued that the economic recovery, though it will almost certainly continue, will not likely deliver the acceleration of which the media has enthused of late. One examined the employment picture, the other patterns in capital spending. This week’s discussion looks at the consumer sector. At some 70% of the economy, the consumer just about determines the overall pace and direction of any recovery. This analysis, too, confirms that slow growth patterns will likely prevail going forward.      

Table 1 lays out the statistical essentials. It shows the major elements of household income, taxes, saving, and spending during the second half of 2013 and so far this year. For perspective, it includes a column (at the far right) showing the proportion of overall personal income reflected in each item on the table.

Income   
The first block of figures in particular explains why a lasting acceleration is less than likely. Apart from the normal statistical noise, the growth of overall personal income so far this year differs little from the pattern set in the second half of 2013. This aggregate averaged a 3.1% annual rate of expansion during last year’s second half and though it has picked up to a 3.6% rate, so far this year, the difference is hardly significant. Important subcategories show even less difference. Total employee compensation has grown at a 3.0% annualized rate so far this year, slightly less than the 3.1% averaged during 2013’s second half. Wage and salary income, growing at a 3.0% annualized rate so far this year, has actually decelerated from the 3.3% rate of expansion averaged during last year’s second half. Proprietors’ income, too, has decelerated, growing so far this year at an annual rate of 2.4%, slightly below the 2.6% rate of advance averaged during the last six months of 2013. Income from assets (dividends, interest, and net capital gains) actually suggests a loss of growth momentum altogether.1

Tax Effects                     
Nor does the influence from Washington suggest an acceleration. Tax burdens so far this year have grown at a 2.4% annualized rate, faster than the 1.3% annual rate registered during last year’s second half. To be sure, this comparison may be misleading. The tax picture last year was remarkably uneven because so many managements, worried about tax hikes in 2013, paid huge bonuses and special dividends during 2012’s fourth quarter, and this caused a surge in tax payments during the spring tax season in 2013, when flows of tax money actually expanded at more than a 10% annual rate. Little wonder, then, that in the summer quarter, after this effect had run its course, the flow of tax payments dropped. For all these gyrations, however, aftertax income, what the Commerce Department calls “disposable income,” has averaged fairly steady but slow growth, expanding at a 3.4% annualized rate during last year’s second half and 3.6% so far this year. 

This picture says fairly definitively that matters going forward should remain pretty much as sluggish as they have throughout this recovery. Certainly, the pattern of hiring, discussed here two weeks ago, confirms that there is little likelihood of a surge in income that might alter established, slow-growth income patterns. To be sure, Washington this year will offer less of a drag on the growth of aftertax income than it did in 2013. For the whole of last year, increased tax rates, plus the effect of the sudden spring gain, pushed up tax burdens by more than 8%. The additional take from the consumer’s pocket amounted to $101.4 billion more than if taxes had just tracked income. It was, incidentally, more than the whole spending sequester over which so much ink was spilled and Washington expressed so much anxiety. With no new taxes or special payouts this year, the consumer at least will avoid a shock.

Savings
Even this, however, is unlikely to produce the acceleration of which so many are talking. As is only partially evident in Table 1, consumers shouldered last year’s additional tax burden by reducing their flows into savings. These fell at more than a 5% annual rate on average during last year’s second half. Though taxes have stabilized, albeit at higher rates, consumers seem disinclined to spend and more inclined to reestablish their savings flows. So far this year, as the table shows, their savings flows have jumped at a 33.2% annual rate. This may not last. They may turn to spending, but so far, the picture suggests that even this relief offers little reason to look for the talked-about acceleration in consumer spending or the economy in general.  

 

Table 1. Consumer Sector Statistical Essentials
Consecutive growth, seasonally adjusted, annualized

 


3Q

4Q

2014 YTD
Pct. of Total
Year-end 2013

Personal Income

4.0%

2.2%

3.6%

100.0%

Compensation of
Employees

2.4

3.7

3.0

62.7

Wages and Salaries

2.6

3.9

3.0

50.6

Proprietor’s Income

5.9

-0.7

2.4

9.5

Income on Assets

7.6

-0.1

-3.0

14.2

Tax liability

-2.7

5.3

2.4

11.8

Disposable Personal
Income

4.9

1.8

3.6

88.2

Personal Outlays

3.9

4.3

3.0

84.6

Savings Flows

28.0

-38.2

33.2

3.6

Source: Department of Commerce.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Critical Releases in the Week Ahead

Milton Ezrati examines the key economic and financial releases scheduled for the coming week.

Key Mover:

Retail Sales for April*
Tues., May 13, at 8:30 a.m. ET
Previous: +3.8% • Prospect: +0.6%

March’s inordinate strength reflected a surge from the weather-depressed sales of earlier in the year.  That should not repeat, indicating the likelihood of a return to the slow-growth trend. 
*Source: Department of Commerce.

Others to Watch:

Consumer Price Index for April*
Thur., May 15, at 8:30 a.m. ET
Previous: +0.2% • Prospect: +0.1%

In March, a temporary energy price drop partly offset the effect of surges in medical care prices and airline fares.  Neither effect is likely in the April figures. 
*Source: Department of Labor.

Housing Starts for April*
Fri., May 16, at 8:30 a.m. ET
Previous: -2.4% • Prospect: +1.0%

The severe winter weather, which artificially depressed housing starts in December and January, produced a February surge that was then redressed in March.  This expected April rise should put the figures back on their shallow recovery trend.
*Source: Department of Commerce.

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