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Consumer confidence fell in December as Americans began to fear the higher taxes threatened by the fiscal cliff. Confidence had reached a five-year high in November, fueled by slowly declining unemployment and a steady housing rebound. Consumer spending is the driving force of the economy.
But the deal to avoid the cliff won’t necessarily ignite a burst of spending. Taxes will still rise for nearly 80 percent of working Americans because of the higher Social Security tax rate.
Since the recession officially ended in June 2009, pay has barely kept up with inflation. The Social Security tax increase will cut paychecks further. And with the job market likely to remain tight, few companies have much incentive to hand out raises.
Thanks to record-low interest rates, consumers have whittled their debts to about 113 percent of their after-tax income. That’s the lowest share since mid-2003, according to Haver Analytics.
Yet that hardly means people are ready to reverse course and ramp up credit-card purchases. Most new spending would have to come from higher incomes, says Ellen Zentner, senior economist at Nomura Securities.
"We don’t see the mindset of, ‘Let’s run up the credit card again,’" she says.
The holiday shopping season in 2012 produced the worst year-over-year performance since 2008. Shoppertrak, a consulting firm, estimates that sales grew just 2.5 percent, down from an earlier forecast of 3.3 percent.
Economists are nearly unanimous about one thing: The housing market will keep improving.
That’s partly because of a fact that’s caught many by surprise: Five years after the housing bust left a glut of homes in many areas, the nation doesn’t have enough houses. Only 149,000 new homes were for sale at the end of November, the government has reported. That’s just above the 143,000 in August, the lowest total on records dating to 1963. And the supply of previously occupied homes for sale is at an 11-year low.
"We need to start building again," says Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight.
Sales of new homes in November reached their highest annual pace in 2½ years. They were 15 percent higher than a year earlier. And October marked a fifth straight month of year-over-year price increases in the 20 major cities covered by the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller national home price index.
Potential homebuyers "are more likely to buy, and banks are more likely to lend" when prices are rising, says James O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. "It feeds on itself."
Higher prices are also encouraging builders to begin work on more homes. They were on track last year to start construction of the most homes in four years.
Ultra-low mortgage rates have helped spur demand. The average rate on the U.S. 30-year fixed mortgage is 3.35 percent, barely above the 3.31 percent reached in November, the lowest on records dating to 1971.
Housing tends to have an outside impact on the economy. A housing recovery boosts construction jobs and encourages more spending on furniture and appliances. And higher home prices make people feel wealthier, which can also lead to more spending.
"When you have a housing recovery, it’s nearly impossible for the U.S. economy to slip into recession," Zentner says.
Factories appear to be recovering slowly from a slump last fall. The Institute for Supply Management’s index of manufacturing activity rose last month from November. And a measure of employment suggested that manufacturers stepped up hiring in December. Factories had cut jobs in three of the four months through November, according to government data.
Another encouraging sign: Americans are expected to buy more cars this year. That would help boost manufacturing output. Auto sales will likely rise nearly 7 percent in 2013 over last year to 15.3 million, according to the Polk research firm. Sales likely reached 14.5 million last year, the best since 2007. In 2009, sales were just 10.4 million, the fewest in more than 30 years.
And if Congress can raise the federal borrowing limit without a fight that damages confidence, companies might boost spending on computers, industrial machinery and other equipment in the second half of 2013, economists say. That would help keep factories busy.
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