Everything’s fine, says the data. At the end of 2021, 78% of adults were either “doing okay” or “living comfortably,” according to the Federal Reserve’s Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021. A full 64% of people could cover an unexpected $400 expense with cash or cash equivalent, up from 56% in 2020.
People have money and are spending it reassuringly murmurs more data, this time from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Advisors (BEA). Personal income was up 0.4% in May, disposable income (what’s left after taxes) increased 0.3%, and personal consumption expenditures jumped by 0.9%.
Unemployment continues to fall even as there’s a near record number of jobs looking for candidates. White House National Economic Council director Brian Deese told Fox News that the country is experiencing “the strongest period of economic growth in 40 years, the strongest labor recovery in modern history, and progress on reducing the deficit.”
But consumers’ confidence slipped slightly in May as did their expectations of the short-term future for income, business, and labor conditions, by the Conference Board’s ongoing measurements. And the latest Forbes Advisor-Ipsos Consumer Confidence Biweekly Tracker shows that as job security confidence and employment outlook were up, expectations again are slipping from even two weeks ago.
The atmosphere is almost like an early scene in a horror movie. Characters move about and everything seems fine on the surface, but there’s some sense of dread and slowly but inexorably perceptions move from sunny to cloudy and perhaps even to stormy.
The evidence that economic cheerleaders bring up is frequently one-sided, biased by a focus on averages, and data is inexact and flawed. The Fed’s report sits on surveys from October and November of 2021, not long after there was still relief money coming to many. Bank accounts still had some of that anxiety reducing pandemic rescue cash but it’s quickly dwindling.
The BEA estimates of savings rates—percentage of disposable income that goes into personal savings—have drifted down from 6% in January 2022 to 5.9% in February, 5% in March, and April’s 4.4%. Banks have been seeing huge increases in credit card debt: seasonally adjusted annual rate up 10.2% in January and then 17.3% in February, 29.5% in March, and 31.6% in April, according to the Federal Reserve.
The rise came after a 10.9% drop in 2020 that extended into an annualized drop of 3.3% in the first quarter of 2021. The country is again near the record indebtedness to bank credit card programs that it saw right before the pandemic recession, as the graph below shows.
Outside the ranks of professional politicians and economists, many, if not most, people face increasing difficulty making ends meet, with inflation twisting their arms. They’re doing as they often have in the past, burning through savings, getting into debt, with the hope that conditions shortly will turn around.
Yes, consumers are spending more. Perhaps because inflation has made everything more expensive. Food prices continue to grow, as is clear when you shop for groceries and notice that the average cost per bag that leaves the store with you is unusually high. Real average earnings, what people make after inflation, dropped by 2.6% year over year in April.
Look at housing. In March, economist and fellow Forbes contributor Richard McGahey rightly noted the incredibly high increases in asking rents, up 15.2% back in January according to real estate site Redfin
As JP Morgan Chase noted in an April note: “Facing the most rapid price increases since the early 1980s, many U.S. households are facing difficult choices, including whether to change purchasing habits or dig into savings. For example, between January 3 and April 4, 2022, fuel prices nationally increased by almost one-third. If this lasts the whole year, we might see sustained changes in household spending.” Or, as the headline read, “Rising prices for fuel, rent, and food eat into families’ financial gains.”
Now, as the New York Times reports, it is true that many experts think the economy is overheated and needs to be slowed with higher interest rates and reduced job growth. It’s the worker, not unceasing rises in corporate profits, and that damned inclination to spend money to get what they need for daily life, even as prices rise, that is the problem. The labor market has to get back into “balance.” The economy can’t afford wages, stilted for so long, to continue their increase, even as people find themselves sliding backwards.
Average consumers aren’t deliberately analytical, but there’s a common sense understanding of how personal economics is feeling pressure. They catch the hint of ominous music suggesting danger ahead around a shadowed corner. In that sense, their gut feel is far ahead of what the professional number crunchers see, or maybe what they’re willing to admit.