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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More Americans say they are living comfortably or at least “doing okay” financially, according to the Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017. At the same time, four in 10 adults say that, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, they would not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money. That represents an improvement from 2013, when half of all adults said they would have trouble handling such an expense, but suggests that many Americans are still close to the edge when it comes to their personal finances.
The Tax Policy Center’s Daily Deduction reports that Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday introduced The Jobs and Opportunity with Benefits and Services (JOBS) for Success Act (H.R. 5861). “The bill would rename the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and target benefits to the lowest-income households. Although the House GOP leadership promised to include an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit as part of an upcoming welfare reform bill, this measure does not appear to include any EITC provisions.” The committee will mark up the bill on Wednesday.
The GOP tax cuts expanded an exemption for the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) and changed tax breaks that often triggered the tax. As a result, The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Saunders reports, “This year’s AMT is a shadow of its former self. It is expected to raise about $5 billion for 2018, down from an estimated $39 billion under prior law, according to the Tax Policy Center.” The AMT will likely hit some 200,000 tax filers for 2018, down from roughly 5 million who would have had to pay if the tax cuts hadn’t been passed. And the number of people making $500,000 or less who owe the AMT will fall to about 120,000 this year from 4 million last year, a Tax Policy Center economist tells the Journal.