Commentary > The Hays Files
Keep the consumer spending
Sales data leaves something to be desired -- and that could be a problem.
January 29, 2003: 4:38 PM EST
By Kathleen Hays, CNN/Money Contributing Columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - As the White House prepares to push its huge "long-term" economic growth package through Congress (and Democrats prepare to push back), a key question remains: just what kind of push, if any, does the economy really need?

The answer to that question lies with the U.S. consumer, because consumer spending makes up two-thirds of the U.S. economy.

Tuesday's retail sales numbers give the latest reading on the health of America's households. Retail sales include everything from cars to refrigerators to restaurant meals to gasoline, and excludes spending on services, such as medical care, tuition and legal fees.

In December, retail sales jumped 1.2 percent. Not great overall, and if you take out automobiles (cars and light trucks jumped 5 percent), the sales level was unchanged. Department store sales were tepid (we knew that from the holiday shopping season), and sales of building materials and furniture were weak, a hint to some economists that maybe -- a big maybe -- the super-hot housing sector is getting a bit less steamy.

Watch the trend line

For the year as a whole, retail sales rose just 3.4 percent, the smallest annual increase since 1993, when the Commerce Department started tracking this series of spending figures. Strong auto sales played a big part in the annual figure, as did gasoline sales, which jumped more than 16 percent, owing mostly to higher gas prices.

(Like today, the United States in 1993 was in the throes of lackluster, post-recession recovery that was not creating many jobs -- not a good scenario for giving the consumer much confidence to spend.)

When it comes to the economy's "official" fourth-quarter growth rate (that's gross domestic product or GDP), spending is also stacking up to be pretty weak. The GDP measure of spending known as Personal Consumption Expenditures (or PCE) includes services, and Wall Street economists are talking about an increase of just 1.0 to 1.5 percent.

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And the consumer faces a lot of challenges, like rising oil; the threat of war, which could mean no new hiring; and still-high debt levels.

That's why a lot of economists support the general push to get more money in consumers' pockets. This camp believes there's too many uncertainties and not enough momentum to guarantee a level of consumer spending that would keep the U.S. moving forward.

There's another camp that says the consumer is doing just fine, and it's businesses that need the extra help. But it seems highly unlikely that Republicans or Democrats, presidential hopefuls or incumbents, will be willing to trust that camp. From what we have seen so far in the economic numbers, politicians should find plenty of reasons to stimulate away.

Kathleen Hays co-anchors Money & Markets, airing Monday to Friday on CNNfn, and appears throughout the day reporting on the economy and how it affects financial markets. As part of CNN's Business News team, she is also a regular contributor to Lou Dobbs Moneyline.  Top of page

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