Finance and economics | No returns

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:盖蒂图片社
|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.
没有什么能够阻止美国消费者。起初,他们把抗击新冠肺炎 (covid-19) 疫情的积蓄花在了家庭健身自行车上;现在,他们更有可能去海边度假。银行老板去年夏天做出的家庭将受到通货膨胀挤压的预测令人困惑。相反,他们的支出推动了美国国内生产总值的增长,其速度超过了七国集团的其他国家。

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%.
但预测最终会成真吗?月度消费者支出增速从 3 月份的 0.7% 降至 4 月份的 0.2%。总体支出实际萎缩。零售销售疲软,汉堡供应商麦当劳和胶带制造商 3m 等品牌警告称,顾客正在捂紧钱包。 5 月 31 日公布的最新支出数据,将美联储亚特兰大分行对年度 GDP 增长的预测下调了近一个百分点,将今年第二季度的“即时预测”下调至 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.
没有什么比信用卡数据更能体现这种痛苦了。根据旧金山联储的数据,家庭在 3 月份耗尽了疫情期间 2.1 万美元的超额储蓄中的最后一部分。提款迫使越来越多的人依靠信用卡来支付支出,有些人现在正在努力偿还债务。信用机构 Transunion 的保罗·齐格弗里德 (Paul Siegfried) 估计,自去年 4 月以来,已有 44 万信用卡持有者被降级为次级信用卡级别。账户拖欠速度正以2011年的最高速度出现。那些贷款买车的人几乎同样快无法还款,导致一些人卖掉了自己的汽车。根据销售平台 Kelley Blue Book 的数据,5 月份二手车挂牌量同比增长 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.
佛罗里达州是问题的核心。该州拥有大量低收入工人,在纽约联储分析的样本中,该州的拖欠率最高。 Esther Lopez 已在迈阿密小哈瓦那的发薪日贷款机构 ace Cash Express 工作了 15 年。她说,她的商店发放的贷款比新冠疫情之前少了,但这只是因为许多竞争性贷款机构最近开业,预计需求会增加。个人金融公司 WalletHub 认为,该市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。迈阿密的棒球场被恰如其分地命名为“贷款仓库公园”。

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.
然而,一些人仍然看好整个国家。咨询公司 Yardeni Research 的埃里克·沃勒斯坦 (Eric Wallerstein) 认为,拖欠率上升是回归常态,而不是更糟糕情况的预兆。诚然,较高的利率意味着贫穷的债权人更有可能拖欠还款。美联储的基准利率为 5.25-5.5%,是 2019 年的两倍多。然而,拖欠率远低于 2007 年(上次利率如此高),而且确实比 1991 年至 2011 年的任何时候都要低。银行对当前的压力水平感到放松,并且提高信贷限额的速度快于客户用完余额的速度。

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.
许多美国人仍然过着极其舒适的生活。收入高、花钱大的人——这种人在迈阿密南海滩比在小哈瓦那更常见——在偿还信用卡债务方面没有什么问题。尽管利率上升,但房屋的总体偿债成本仍然很低,因为许多抵押贷款持有人都在进行长期修复。总而言之,三分之一的抵押贷款债务在 2020-21 年进行了再融资,因为借款人利用了低利率,这意味着家庭用于偿还债务的收入比例比 2010 年代的任何时候都要小。那些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,美国大型企业标准普尔 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.
对整体经济而言,重要的是有多少消费者最终难以维持收支平衡。收入的增加,加上大流行病带来的储蓄,才是美国支出猛增的真正动力。由于储蓄率较低且过剩储蓄耗尽,持续的支出将不得不由更高的收入来推动。就业依然强劲,首次申请失业救济人数稳定。尽管4月份月度名义工资增速略有下降,但数据也表明通胀可能已恢复下降,这将提振实际收入。家庭资产负债表已经疲软,但如果运气好的话,美国可能会继续避免消费紧缩。 ■

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