Money Matters - Simplified

So Long to the "Perfect" Economy

It's the day before-the-day before Christmas, and you know what that means -- the new BEA spending and income report is here! (Hurray?) This morning, the U.S. Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis released its monthly summary of Americans' collective checkbook. I know how excited you'll all be to see it, so I won't keep you waiting. Here's how it looks.

 


 

Looks like good news, huh? For the fifth straight month (actually, the eight straight month if you look back a bit farther), Americans increased the amount of cash they traded for stuff. Grand news for companies such as Wal-Mart and Amazon.com, which cater to a spendthrift consumer, right? Investors are right to be uber-optimistic about the future of the stock market, right?

Not so fast
Before we all rush out to participate in the Santa Claus rally, there are a few items I want to point out in the BEA data. Firstly, see that huge bump in consumer spending in October? That's new. It wasn't there a month ago. When the BEA first announced the October numbers, consumer income and spending were in almost perfect balance -- and now it turns out that we actually spent a whole lot more than we earned in October. That money was spent mostly, according to BEA's data, and to the delight of Ford (NYSE: F) and General Motors  (NYSE: GM) investors, on new cars.

Indeed, our credit card bills have been growing faster than our paychecks for six straight months now. But where's the money coming from? Answer: It's getting sucked right out of your savings account. Our national savings rate dropped to 5.3% in November -- the lowest level in six months.

Foolish final thought
As if all this weren't bad enough, here's one final bit of news to chew over: Income didn't increase enough to cover consumer spending in November, but it did at least increase somewhat. Yet dig into the details of the BEA's report, and you'll discover that salary increases accounted for only 21% of what overall income growth we did see in November. The bulk of the growth actually came from "personal income receipts on assets," a.k.a. the stock market.

So if stock market returns begin to lag, the gap between income and spending could loom even larger. I suspect that that wouldn't be particularly good for future stock market returns -- and on ad infinitum.

 

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