One Number Says it All

NEW HAVEN – The number is 0.2%. It is the average annualized growth of US consumer spending over the past 14 quarters – calculated in inflation-adjusted terms from the first quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2011. Never before in the post-World War II era have American consumers been so weak for so long. This one number encapsulates much of what is wrong today in the US – and in the global economy.

There are two distinct phases to this period of unprecedented US consumer weakness. From the first quarter of 2008 through the second period of 2009, consumer demand fell for six consecutive quarters at a 2.2% annual rate. Not surprisingly, the contraction was most acute during the depths of the Great Crisis, when consumption plunged at a 4.5% rate in the third and fourth quarters of 2008.

As the US economy bottomed out in mid-2009, consumers entered a second phase – a very subdued recovery. Annualized real consumption growth over the subsequent eight-quarter period from the third quarter of 2009 through the second quarter of 2011 averaged 2.1%. That is the most anemic consumer recovery on record – fully 1.5 percentage points slower than the 12-year pre-crisis trend of 3.6% that prevailed between 1996 and 2007.

These figures are a good deal weaker than originally stated. As part of the annual reworking of the US National Income and Product Accounts that was released in July 2011, Commerce Department statisticians slashed their earlier estimates of consumer spending. The 14-quarter growth trend from early 2008 to mid-2011 was cut from 0.5% to 0.2%; the bulk of the downward revision was concentrated in the first six quarters of this period – for which the estimate of the annualized consumption decline was doubled, from 1.1% to 2.2%.