US Economy Continues to Impress as Consumer Spending Beats Expectations
Strong consumer spending and a better-than-expected 4th quarter GDP advocate the soft-landing narrative. The recent PCE inflation report, favored by the Fed, came in as expected with the indication that inflation is cooling. Despite positive economic indicators like a surging stock market, low unemployment, and increased housing activity, there are concerns that the Fed may not lower rates as quickly as some economists suggest.
Our perspective is that while inflation is cooling, it remains too high when viewed on a 3-year average, which is up over 20%. Wages have not risen at the same pace, leaving consumers with less to spend. Some costs, especially essential expenses, seem to have increased significantly more than 20% when compared to pre-COVID levels.
There are a few reasons why mortgage rates are showing improvement, and some products have rates below 6.00%. First, with the Fed signaling the end of its hiking cycle, banks can better forecast their cost of funds and price mortgage products along the yield curve. Second, mortgage spreads are tightening, leading to lower rates. Furthermore, with the start of 2024, each bank has new production goals, increasing competition and keeping banks honest on pricing. This is positive news for the housing market and the residential real estate community.
Turning to national debt and the consumer, the national deficit is over $34 trillion (about $100,000 per person in the US) and is a growing concern. Overspending was once considered a problem for future generations and is now a pressing issue. While there’s no immediate risk of a government default, there’s concern that if bond vigilantes demand higher yields due to perceived risk, bond yields could rise despite the Fed lowering short-term interest rates. While the likelihood of this happening in the short term remains low, it’s worth monitoring.
Credit card spending remains robust, indicating that consumers are optimistic about the future. However, credit card balances and delinquencies are rising, suggesting that borrowed money is not being repaid as quickly as before. This shift in credit card data, often seen as a high-frequency economic indicator, could be a sign of the economy’s health, with consumers generally in good shape.
In conversations with various business owners, we observe a mixed economic landscape. Some businesses are thriving, some face challenges, and others remain uncertain about the future. Although the economy appears to be in better shape than expected last year, it remains fragile. Nonetheless, overall business sentiment is more optimistic than the previous year, a benefit to the existing home market while real estate brokers prepare for the busy spring season.