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Consumer spending could suffer in 2006
Cooling real estate market could finally force consumers to pull back. The impact could be huge.
November 21, 2005: 4:21 PM EST
By Parija Bhatnagar, CNN/Money staff writer
Hot and cold home markets
These real estate markets are the extremes: the fastest growing and the slowest. (Full story)
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Here's what consumers can look forward to when the midnight bell-ringing comes to a stop: sharply higher home heating bills, holiday credit card bills, rising interest rates -- and now what looks like a slowing real estate market.

So forget about the typical holly jolly tidings for 2006.

Economists interviewed for this story all say that they're "concerned" about whether cash-strapped Americans have much gas left in the tank to keep being the main driver of economic growth in the months ahead.

Some experts, such as University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici, are more skeptical than others.

"The cooling housing market is very significant," Morici said. "People have been using equity from their home to prop up their spending."

And while gasoline prices at the pump have retreated considerably from their post-Katrina highs, they're still up some 15 percent from a year ago, he said. "That takes a considerable bite out of the household budget," Morici added.

Although he doesn't expect consumers will buckle over the holidays -- he's predicting a "decent" season with total sales up about 5.5 to 6 percent overall -- watch out for the post-holiday blues, when people realize that they're poorer in the new year than they were a year ago.

"We'll likely see problems in the first-quarter," he said. "The savings rate is negative, there's high credit card delinquencies, home equity is not there at the same levels as before and home prices will fall further. Basically, people are spending much more than they are taking in."

Any pullback is likely to be felt quickly since consumer spending fuels about two-thirds of the world's largest economy.

"The economy will slow next year," Morici said. "On the plus side we have falling gas prices but that decline won't be enough to offset falling home prices."

He predicts the economy will slow as the year progresses, with gross domestic product growing 3.6 percent in the first quarter, 3.5 percent in the second quarter and 3.3 percent for the rest of the year -- versus a 3.8 percent reading for the third quarter.

He sees consumer spending growing about 3 percent next year, adjusted for inflation, down from about 3.5 percent this year.

"Consumer spending has been pulling the wagon for a while now," Morici said. "That won't be the case next year."

Home, "bittersweet" home

Experts say the nation's housing market has made consumers feel wealthier, acting as a bulwark against the summer's rising energy prices.

When interest rates were falling and home prices were rising, Americans quickly refinanced their mortgages at the lower rates, effectively turning their homes into piggy banks, and raiding them for cash.

In 2004, home loan refinancing activity contributed about 7 percent of total disposable income, up from 5 percent the year before, according to Nariman Behravesh, chief economist with Global Insight.

Now, with interest rates rising and home prices softening, refi activity is slowing, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. The group's index of refinancing applications recently dropped 3.4 percent, its third consecutive weekly decline, to the lowest level since early April.

Two other measures of the housing market -- housing starts and building permits -- fell in November, raising worries about the housing market and the strength of home prices in the long run.

Behravesh at Global Insight thinks refi activity in 2006 will decline further, contributing just 2 to 3 percent to consumers' total disposable income, or money that is spent on such items as clothes, shoes, DVDs and home furnishings.

Behravesh, too, foresees some slowdown in consumer spending. "Consumers as the major growth engine will no longer be the driving factor for the economy," he said.

Instead, he points to increased business spending on the back of "strong corporate profits" and a surge in exports as two factors that could support the economy, even if the consumer starts to wilt.

"It's not as if the consumer will collapse," he said. "The labor market is adding about 180,000 jobs every months. That's quite decent and it's help retail sales. Interest rates are rising gradually and that's a bit of a brake on the economy.

"Housing prices are cooling but they're not falling. Even if housing prices fall 10 percent, that will reduce (growth in) consumer from 3 to (about) 2 percent. Even that wouldn't be a recession scenario," he said.

Steve Cochrane, managing director with Economy.com, agreed that a stable labor market has helped to spur spending.

"I won't say that the labor market has hit a home run but the unemployment rate has not gone up, which is important," he said.

But as housing activity slows, there's a risk that construction and other real estate-related jobs will suffer, especially in the hot markets in California and along parts of both coasts.

In addition to troubling refi trends, University of Maryland's Morici said he's also carefully watching personal income levels.

"Weakening refi activity is not as imperative as a fall in disposable income," he said.

"Until last month, wage growth hasn't been too great. Most people don't have any control over this. You can't go into your boss' office and pump your fists asking for a raise. Lower wages means people have less money overall to spend."

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