The American Consumer is Not Okay

The spin-doctors are hard at work arguing that falling unemployment, rising home values, and record stock prices mean that the American consumer – the major drag on the economy in the post-crisis period – is finally back. The facts say otherwise.

NEW HAVEN – The spin-doctors are hard at work talking up America’s subpar economic recovery. All eyes are on households. Thanks to falling unemployment, rising home values, and record stock prices, an emerging consensus of forecasters, market participants, and policymakers has now concluded that the American consumer is finally back.

Don’t believe it. First, consider the facts: Over the 21 quarters since the beginning of 2008, real (inflation-adjusted) personal consumption has risen at an average annual rate of just 0.9%. That is by far the most protracted period of weakness in real US consumer demand since the end of World War II – and a massive slowdown from the pre-crisis pace of 3.6% annual real consumption growth from 1996 to 2007.

With household consumption accounting for about 70% of the US economy, that 2.7-percentage-point gap between pre-crisis and post-crisis trends has been enough to knock 1.9 percentage points off the post-crisis trend in real GDP growth. Look no further for the cause of unacceptably high US unemployment.

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