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4 Signs American Consumer Is Fine, and Poised to Spend More

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The American consumer is back. Not only are Americans buying more goods and services – more than previously reported – but their balance sheets are stronger, setting them up to buy even more, including big-ticket purchases like houses and cars. 

That bodes well for an economy where consumers reign supreme, accounting for 70% of economic growth. It also keeps the U.S. on a trajectory of continued growth while other major regions are slowing down, like China, or remain sluggish, like the Eurozone.

Here are some of the latest stats feeding this optimism and, at the same time, reinforcing market sentiment that the Fed, despite China’s woes and Europe’s financial headaches, could raise interest rates as early as September, reversing a near zero-rate policy that has persisted for almost seven years.

Sign 1: Retail Sales

Americans bought more cars, clothing, furniture, building materials and garden equipment in July than in June and spent more in June than previously thought. July sales rose 0.6%, compared to the previous month, led by car sales, which jumped 1.4% the level of June retail sales was revised higher to unchanged from the 0.3% drop previously reported. Compared to a year ago retail sales in July were up 2.4%.

“Consumers came back to life in July after lying low in June,” writes Chris Christopher, director of U.S. consumer economics at IHS Global Insight. Discretionary spending improved significantly. … There was hardly any bad news in this report. [The only losers were department and electronic stores.]….Looking ahead, we expect August retail sales excluding gasoline and autos to outpace July’s showing. Real consumer spending growth is likely to be slightly north of 3% for the third and fourth quarters of this year.” And that would boost overall economic growth as seen in the Commerce Dept’s GDP reports.

Sign 2: Jobs

Although the Labor Department’s weekly jobless claims report released today showed an increase in unemployment claims for the week ended August 8, the more important four-week moving average of claims fell 1,750 to 266,250 last week, the lowest level since April 2000.

The jobs report for July, released last Friday, showed payrolls gaining 215,000 jobs and the unemployment steady at 5.3%. June payrolls were revised higher to 231,000.  Even wages, which haven’t always kept pace, rose, up 0.2%, in July.

Sign 3: Balance Sheets

Although consumers’ debt balances were generally flat in the second quarter, foreclosures fell to their lowest level in at least 16 years and delinquency rates declined while student loan balances were flat and originations of auto loans and mortgages surged, according to the latest Household Debt and Credit Report released by the New York Fed. “The low rates of delinquency and new foreclosures reflect the higher quality of outstanding mortgage debt and improved economic conditions,” wrote Wilbert van der Klaauw, senior VP at the New York Fed, commenting on the report.

Borrowers with credit scores topping 780 accounted for almost half of new mortgage borrowers. Those with scores under 660 accounted for only 8%. Total consumer debt rose $2 billion to $11.85 trillion, which is virtually unchanged.

The Mortgage Bankers Association reported Thursday that the foreclosure starts rate fell to just 0.4% in the second quarter, which is on par with the rate seen during the housing boom. The delinquency rate fell to 5.3%, its lowest level since the second quarter of 2007.

Sign 4: Housing

In addition to autos, housing remains a strong sector of the economy, supported by steady job growth. Sales of existing homes rose 3.2% in June to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.49 million — the fastest pace since February 2007. New home sales, however, fell in June to a seven-month low, but they account for only about 8% of the broader housing market. Compared to a year ago, new home sales in June were up 18.1%.

Home prices continue to rise, gaining 4.4% in May compared to a year ago, according to the latest report from S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index.

Offsetting the positive data about the housing market is the fact that home ownership is declining. The proportion of Americans owning their own homes  is now at the lowest level since 1967, according to government statistics. Just 63.4% of Americans owned homes in the second quarter, down from 63.7% in the first quarter and below the peak of 69% in 2006, in the midst of the housing bubble.

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