Friday, August 14, 2009

Propping up consumer spending

A recent article in Business Week called Retail Sales: How to Get Consumers Spending Again discusses what will get consumers spending again. This is a critical issue, given that consumer spending is such a major part of the GDP. The article focuses on "shoppability" or making product more relevant to consumers:
Researching consumer behavior, Burke has identified several factors that can deliver "shoppability"—the ability to translate consumer needs and desires into purchases. The most important things for retailers are "relevance—making sure products consumers want are in stock and at fair prices. And they need to understand who their customers are and have inventories tailored to meet their unique demands."

Clearly that should help. But we know that in the past consumer spending to a large extent had been driven by the availability of easy credit. Therefore it's worth comparing recent trends in consumer loans on banks' balance sheet to consumer behavior. The chart below compares consumer loan balances (from the Fed) for all US chartered banks to retail sales, excluding autos and gas (from the US Census Bureau). The recent similarity in trends is striking.

Loan balances have been falling considerably recently, which may show up in a poor consumer spending result for August (when the number is released in September). If this similarity is more than a coincidence, one could argue that in order to get consumer to start spending again, more credit needs to become available from banks.

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