Where Americans Are Spending More..

Since the recession started in the fourth quarter of 2007, the common theme has been about Americans cutting back on their spending. But the latest numbers from the BEA show aggregate personal consumption expenditures are up 2.9%, or $285 billion.  So we must be spending more on something!

So here is a table of winners: Some goods and services which have shown an increase in spending since 2007IV.

Right there up at the top is America’s love affair with mobile devices, where spending has soared almost 17% since the recession started.  Also supporting my thesis of a communications boom–spending on wired, wireless, and cable services have risen by 5%.

In addition, Americans still care about their pets, their children, their hair, and their guns.

Of course, the data also shows a big gain in spending on education, healthcare, and housing, but it’s impossible to know how much of that increase is actually coming out of the pockets of households. Education spending includes government tuition aid and spending by private nonprofits out of their endowments and contributions; healthcare spending including Medicare, Medicaid, and employer-paid insurance; and housing includes a huge imputation for owner-occupied housing, which may or may not correspond to an actual increase or decrease in out-of-pocket spending.

Once we take those three huge categories out of the data, the remaining PCE has actually gone down by 0.6% since the recession started.  So now let’s look at a table of losers: Selected categories of spending that have gone down.

Americans are spending a little bit less on clothing and hotels; a lot less on foreign travel, video and audio equipment (think televisions), and furniture. The big drop, though, has come in motor vehicles and associated goods and services, like gasoline.

No, It’s Not 70% of Economic Activity

I might as well turn this into a monthly feature. In response to today’s personal income report, Martin Crutsinger of AP writes:

Consumer spending is closely watched because it accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity.

No, it doesn’t, Martin. Every time a journalist says that consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity, he or she is misleading readers into believing that the U.S. economy cannot grow without the consumer taking the main role (see my earlier posts here and here). 

In fact, the meme “consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity” pretty much obscures all the major problems with today’s economy.

1) The ’70 percent’ meme blurs the distinction between domestic production and imports, since  a big chunk of imported goods are counted in PCE ; 

2) The ’70 percent’ meme blurs the distinction between household and government spending, since PCE  includes Medicare and other entitlement spending.

3) The ’70 percent’ meme blurs the distinction between household and institutional spending, since personal consumption expenditures includes money spent by nonprofits (best example: Political parties, which are heavily funded by corporations, fall into personal consumption expenditures) 

To finish off this rather post,  I did some calculations on the sources of growth in real PCE since December 2009.

This table shows that 47% of consumption growth since December comes from spending on import-intensive goods.  In particular,  the two biggest increases in spending came for ‘clothing and footwear’ and ‘consumer electronics and IT equipment’, two categories dominated by imported goods.  You can be sure that when Americans step up their spending on clothing, they are creating very few manufacturing jobs in this country.   

Another 13% of consumption growth came in categories where third-party expenditures are important, such as healthcare and nonprofits.

P.S. I’m getting some traction in my fight against the 70 percent meme. See Donald Marron’s post, for example.

Bad News from Personal Income Report

In today’s personal income report from the BEA,  real personal consumption was up by 0.3%, which according to many commentators was a sign that the economy was improving. Bloomberg had a short piece with the headline:  

U.S. Stocks Rise as Consumer Spending Boosts Economic Optimism

But I look at the numbers and say something very different. I see that real personal income, leaving out transfer payments, fell in February for the second straight month.  So I would have written the headline a different way:

Consumers Keep Spending Because the Government is Giving Them Money

 The private sector shows no sign yet  organically generating growth.  That is to say, the real personal income generated by jobs and private businesses and investments is falling, once we omit the effect of government transfer payments, such as  unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Here’s a little graph:

Not a good sign, by my lights.

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