American consumers must work four months just to pay taxes. Their mutual funds have plunged. Layoffs loom. Their utility bills are up. They are deep in debt.
But consumer confidence is up.
Well, yes, confidence did fall, and sharply, during the past year, but it rebounded in March even as some of the other economic indicators worsened. Business confidence, for example, remains depressed.
Does the consumer sense something that the best trained economic eyes cannot perceive? It’s a question not to be ignored, because no matter how bad a rap consumers have taken in the past, they do have common sense.
But as consumer confidence rises, as measured by March readings from The Conference Board, businesses are laying off workers and cutting their capital spending plans.
The obvious but perhaps superficial explanation is that consumers expect tax refunds, a tax cut, an easing of interest rates, a pickup in business, and a rising stock market that will restore their lost wealth.
And underlying all this appears to be an unreserved faith in the ability of Congress, the White House, the Federal Reserve and business leaderhip to restore the economy to its old robust health.
That faith already is evident in the consumer willingness to spend at a level that dropped the savings rate to a record low of minus 1.3 early in the year, and raised the debts to 107 percent of disposable income.
Unanswered is whether or not leadership can deliver on the hopes.
The Tax Foundation has already concluded that President Bush’s tax plan won’t stop the tendency of the tax code to extract a growing fraction of the nation’s income over the next 10 years.
After having been caught underestimating the economic slowdown, the Federeal Reserve aggressively lowered interest rates, but more recently has shown a reluctance to continue doing so. It still fears inflation.
For its part, businesses aren’t showing a great deal of leadership. They are cutting inventories and reconsidering capital investments, not yet convinced that sales will rise and justify expansion.
The latest report from the National Federation of Independent Business, which considers itself a spokesman for small-business owners, shows optimism fell again in March after having rebounded in February.
Among the specifics of the NFIB report: hiring plans fell, both spending plans and actual outlays fell, and despite a slight improvement over February, “march still delivered one of the worst readings since 1991.”
None of this means the consumers is wrong. But, as economist David A. Wyss sees it, business executive confidence may be more important.
Wyss, author of Standard & Poor’s “U.S. Forecast Summary”, acknowledges in the April issue that consumer spending accounts for 64 percent of gross domestic product, but says the 15 percent accounted for by declining fixed investment by businesses is far more volatile
He believes the turnabout in consumer confidence, “increases our hope that the economy will not fall into actual recession.” But he suggests that the March rebound could be temporary, “a false dawn.”
John Cunniff is a business analyst for The Associated Press