Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Consumer Spending: Just a Mood?

The latest U.S. retail data shows consumers are saving most of the extra money they are getting from lower motor fuel prices. The unusually cold winter weather is a factor, but the unusual weather has had a continuing effect on less than half of the consumers in the country. Weather alone is not enough to explain the nationwide lull in consumer spending.

I have been through some of the same shopping phases as a lot of other people, so my experience may again be emblematic of something. There was a year when I virtually didn’t buy any new clothes — that was the fashion that year — and afterward I was slow to get back into the clothes-shopping habit. Over the last two years, though, I’ve made up for that, to the point where I again have more clothes than I can reasonably expect to wear. This year when I think of clothes-shopping, I think, “You know, I really shouldn’t,” and I end up not buying much. I thought about replacing my 20-year-old car, but that purchase doesn’t seem to have any special urgency. I think about it, but I don’t seem to do anything. On the other hand, I feel as if I am due to make more improvements in my home, but that won’t happen quickly either — when will I find the time? And so I have become a net saver this year, putting the biggest part of my earnings into savings and debt payments.

My hunch is that some fraction of consumers are in a similar cautious, reserved mood, in which shopping doesn’t have its usual urgency and paying down debts or saving for retirement feels more real. The failure of one fashion retail chain after another this winter points in that direction, but so does the ongoing malaise, if you can call it that, in household firearm purchases. I can’t account for where this mood might have come from, though the hazardous weather obviously doesn’t help. Moods, though, come and go, so I wouldn’t be in any hurry to take the current pattern in consumer spending as a trend.