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Is America’s economy heading for a consumer crunch?

Warning signs have started to appear. But there are reasons for optimism

A woman looking at a window of a clothes shop among the luxury stores in the Miami Design District in Miami, Florida, USA.
Photograph: Getty Images 照片:盖蒂图片
|Miami 2024 年 6 月 4 日 迈阿密

Nothing has been able to stop American consumers. At first they splashed covid-19 savings on home-exercise bicycles; now they are more likely to plump for beachside holidays. Predictions, made by bank bosses last summer, that households would be squeezed by inflation have been confounded. Instead, their outlays have powered American GDP ever higher, at a pace beyond the country’s G7 peers.
美国消费者无法被阻止。起初,他们把因新冠疫情而节省下来的钱花在家用健身自行车上;现在更倾向于选择海滨度假。去年夏天银行老板们的预测称,家庭将受通货膨胀挤压,但事实证明他们的支出推动了美国国内生产总值不断增长,增速超过了该国的 g7 同行。

But are the predictions at last coming true? Monthly consumer-spending growth fell from 0.7% in March to just 0.2% in April. Overall spending shrank in real terms. Retail sales have weakened, with brands from McDonald’s, a burger purveyor, to 3M, a maker of sticky tape, warning that customers are closing their wallets. The recent spending data, released on May 31st, helped wipe almost a percentage point off the prediction of annual gdp growth from the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve, cutting its “nowcast” for the second quarter of the year to 1.8%.
但是预测最终会成真吗?月度消费支出增长从 3 月的 0.7%下降到 4 月的仅为 0.2%。总体支出在实际价值上缩水。零售销售疲软,从汉堡供应商麦当劳到胶带制造商 3M 等品牌都警告称,顾客正在收紧钱包。5 月 31 日发布的最新支出数据帮助将美联储亚特兰大分部对年度 GDP 增长的预测减少了近一个百分点,将其对今年第二季度的“现在预测”降至 1.8%。

Nowhere is the pain clearer than in credit-card data. According to the San Francisco Fed, households burned through the last of their $2.1trn of pandemic-era excess savings in March. The drawdown has pushed more and more to rely on credit cards to meet their outgoings, and some are now struggling to repay debts. Paul Siegfried of Transunion, a credit bureau, estimates that since April last year, 440,000 credit-card holders have been downgraded to subprime status. Accounts are becoming delinquent at a pace last seen in 2011. People who have taken out loans to buy cars are falling behind on repayments almost as fast, causing some to sell their vehicles. According to Kelley Blue Book, a sales platform, used-car listings were up 6% in May from a year earlier.
如今,信用卡数据中的痛苦无处不在。根据旧金山联邦储备银行的数据,家庭在三月份耗尽了其 21000 亿美元的疫情时代多余储蓄。这种资金的流失迫使越来越多的人依赖信用卡来支付开支,一些人现在难以偿还债务。信用局 Transunion 的保罗·西格弗里德估计,自去年四月以来,已有 44 万持有信用卡的人被降级为次级信用等级。账户的拖欠速度达到了 2011 年以来的水平。购买汽车贷款的人也开始拖欠还款,导致一些人不得不出售车辆。根据销售平台凯利蓝皮书的数据,五月份二手车上市数量比去年同期增长了 6%。

Florida is at the heart of the trouble. The state is home to lots of low-income workers and has the highest delinquency rates of a sample analysed by the New York Fed. Esther Lopez has worked at ACE Cash Express, a pay-day lender in Little Havana, Miami, for 15 years. She says that her store is handing out fewer loans than before covid—but only because so many competing lenders have recently opened, in anticipation of a rise in demand. The city’s residents will take longer than those anywhere else in the country to repay their credit-card debt, reckons WalletHub, a personal-finance firm. Aptly, Miami’s baseball stadium is named loanDepot Park.
佛罗里达州是麻烦的中心。该州有许多低收入工人,并且根据纽约联邦储备银行分析的样本,拖欠率最高。埃斯特·洛佩斯在迈阿密小哈瓦那的一家名为 Ace Cash Express 的发薪日贷款机构工作了 15 年。她表示,她的店现在发放的贷款比疫情前少了,但这仅仅是因为最近有很多竞争对手开业,预计需求会增加。据个人理财公司 WalletHub 估计,这座城市的居民偿还信用卡债务的时间将比全国其他地方的居民更长。恰当地,迈阿密的棒球场被命名为 loanDepot Park。

Some remain bullish about the country as a whole, however. Eric Wallerstein of Yardeni Research, a consultancy, views rising delinquency rates as a return to normality, rather than as an harbinger of worse to come. True, higher interest rates mean poor creditors are more likely to fall behind on repayments. And at 5.25-5.5% the Fed’s benchmark rate is over double what it was in 2019. Yet delinquency rates are much lower than they were in 2007—the last time interest rates were this high—and indeed at any time from 1991 to 2011. Banks are relaxed about the current level of stress and are raising credit limits faster than customers can use up their balances.
一些人对整个国家仍然持乐观态度。然而,雅登尼研究公司的埃里克·瓦勒斯坦认为,不良贷款率上升是回归正常,而不是更糟糕的前兆。确实,较高的利率意味着贫困债务人更有可能拖欠还款。而美联储的基准利率为 5.25-5.5%,是 2019 年的两倍多。然而,不良贷款率远低于 2007 年——利率曾经达到这么高的最后一次——实际上低于 1991 年至 2011 年的任何时候。银行对当前的压力水平感到放心,并且比客户使用余额更快地提高信用额度。

Chart: The Economist 图表:经济学家

Plenty of Americans remain supremely comfortable. Big spenders on large incomes—the sort more commonly found in Miami’s South Beach than in Little Havana—have little problem repaying credit-card debts. Despite the rise in interest rates, overall debt-servicing costs on homes remain low, since many mortgage-holders are on long-term fixes. All told, one-third of mortgage debt was refinanced in 2020-21, as borrowers took advantage of low rates, meaning that households are spending a smaller share of income on paying down debts than at any point in the 2010s. Those who own homes and stocks are also enjoying rising asset prices and associated rental and dividend incomes. The S&P 500 index of large American companies is up by 11% this year, for instance.
许多美国人仍然非常舒适。高收入的大手笔消费者——更常见于迈阿密南海滩而非小哈瓦那——偿还信用卡债务几乎没有问题。尽管利率上升,房屋整体债务服务成本仍然较低,因为许多抵押贷款持有者采用了长期固定利率。总体而言,2020-21 年有三分之一的抵押贷款得到了再融资,借款人利用低利率,这意味着家庭在偿还债务方面花费的收入比例比 2010 年代的任何时候都要少。拥有房屋和股票的人也享受着不断上涨的资产价格以及相关的租金和股息收入。例如,美国大型公司的标普 500 指数今年上涨了 11%。

What matters for the overall economy is how many consumers end up struggling to make ends meet. Rising incomes, along with pandemic savings, were what really fuelled America’s rip-roaring spending. With savings rates low and excess savings exhausted, continued spending will have to be fuelled by still-higher incomes. Employment remains strong and initial jobless claims are steady. Although in April monthly nominal wage growth crept down, the figures also suggest that inflation may have resumed its descent, which would provide a boost to real incomes. Households’ balance-sheets have weakened, but with a bit of luck America might keep dodging a consumer crunch.
总体经济关键在于有多少消费者最终陷入困境。随着收入增加以及疫情储蓄,真正推动了美国的疯狂支出。随着储蓄率低和过剩储蓄用尽,持续支出将不得不依靠更高的收入。就业市场仍然强劲,初次申请失业救济的人数保持稳定。尽管四月份月度名义工资增长略微下降,但数据也表明通胀可能已经重新开始下降,这将提振实际收入。家庭资产负债表已经削弱,但幸运的是,美国可能会继续避免消费者危机。 ■

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