Economists have been waiting for a surge in consumer spending fueled by savings at the gas pump and a stronger job market boosting personal incomes. They’re going to have to keep waiting.
The Commerce Department on Monday said personal spending was essentially flat in April —it fell less than 0.1 percent — even as personal income rose a better-than-expected 0.4 percent. Americans made more money in April but they didn’t spend more. Instead, they socked it away, raising the savings rate — personal savings as a percentage of disposable income — from 5.2 percent in March to 5.6 percent in April.
The April spending picture was the reverse of that from March, when incomes growth stalled but spending rose. Overall, though, Americans still look to be hesitant about opening up their wallets.
“This report clearly indicates that the bounce back in March did not continue into April,” Chris G. Christopher, Jr., director of consumer economics at HIS Global Insight, said in a note to clients. “It is becoming blatantly obvious that the so-called consumer gasoline price dividend is not motivating the average American household to increase their discretionary spending in any meaningful manner.”
Energy prices have risen lately, but they are still down 20 percent from where they were a year ago, notes PNC Senior Macroeconomist Gus Faucher. Eventually, that should still translate to more spending as long as the job market recovery continues apace.
“Clearly, consumption is hardly booming, but the lag between declines in gas prices and the response in the spending numbers is long, typically six or seven months,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomcs, said in a note to clients. “Gas prices did begin to fall rapidly until November, with the biggest single drop in January, so we don't expect to see consumption accelerate properly until the summer.”
For now, the economists — and the economy — keep waiting.
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“Tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product is expected to be 16.5 percent next year. The long-term average in a full-employment economy is 18.5 percent of GDP; if revenue were at that level for the coming decade, debt would be $3.2 trillion lower and the 10-year fiscal gap would be halved. Returning to past revenue levels, however, will be inadequate over time, because an aging population will increase Medicare and Social Security costs. This need not pose a problem: Revenue was roughly 19 percent of GDP in the late 1990s, and economic conditions were excellent.”
– Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Richard E. Rubin, writing in The Washington Post
“You … often hear the claim that a lot of tax cuts will ‘pay for themselves,’ that they’ll cause so much additional economic activity that the revenue feedback from that activity will fully offset the direct revenue loss caused by the tax cut so that you end up making money for the federal government, or at least not losing any money. Now, of course that is theoretically possible and it would happen at extreme rates. I mean if a country had a 99 percent flat rate income tax and lowered it to 98 percent, I believe that they almost certainly would collect more revenue at the 98 percent rate than they did at the 99 percent rate. But the idea that this type of effect would occur at today’s tax levels just requires responses that are much bigger than statistical evidence would support and I think much bigger than common sense would indicate if you just ask people how they themselves would react to the tax cut.”
It’s summertime and the driving is anything but easy if you want to get to your favorite beach or mountain cabin for a well-deserved break. As lawmakers consider a plan to raise federal fuel taxes by 15 cents a gallon, here’s a look at the current state-level taxes on gasoline, courtesy of the Tax Foundation:
The New York Times’ Jim Tankersley tweets: “In order to raise enough revenue to start paying down the debt, Trump would need tariffs to be ~4% of GDP. They're currently 0.2%.”
Read Tankersley’s full breakdown of why tariffs won’t come close to eliminating the deficit or paying down the national debt here.