Consumers: cutting edge of US recovery

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Suggestion: If you already know how much you will save or spend of the tax cut coming your way in July, please tell an economist.

Many of these professionals are fully convinced that it is the consumer who will lead the nation to economic recovery -- when it comes. After all, they note , consumer spending accounts for well over 60 percent of the gross national product.

But the bizarre mix of economic challenges facing consumers in recent months, from high interest rates to the lack of growth in real income, leaves many of these veteran analysts without a precise forecast of just how consumers will pull off the expected rescue.

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''The business of this economy is producing goods for the consumer -- when he doesn't do well, no one does well,'' confirms Robert Dieli, a vice-president with Continental Bank's Economic Research Department. ''But because consumers have really been on the defensive for the last couple of years and have had so many problems, it's very hard to predict exactly what direction the initial thrust of spending will take. . . . Some will pay off bills. Some may buy cars. And some will invest in individual retirement accounts.''

Even so, many economists are convinced that it is primarily consumer spending rather than saving (the key aim of the Reagan administration's tax cuts) which will ultimately stimulate the economy toward at least a modest recovery. They cite the added income from the July tax cut, buoyed by slowing inflation, the moderating trend in interest rate levels, cost-of-living hikes for social security recipients, and other small shifts as combining to effectively increase the consumer's buying power.

''Our feeling is that the preponderance of the tax cut's effect will be to stimulate spending rather than saving,'' says Richard Berner, head of the Washington office of Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates Inc. He estimates that consumers may stash away only 25 percent of their ''new'' money for a rainy day as opposed to the 75 percent or better which the Reagan administration hopes for.

Yet even those most confident that consumer spending will clear the way to economic recovery stress that taxpayers must also save some of their gains to achieve the needed forward momentum. And most count it inevitable.

''It's not a question of whether the savings rate will jump in July, but of how much,'' says Dr. Sandra Shaber, senior consumer economist with Chase Econometrics, the economic forecasting arm of the Chase Manhattan bank. ''We expect that a good part of that extra income will be spent, but when tax rates go down, people do save more. And a sustained recovery hinges on savings rates going up modestly. One of the ironies of the current situation is that the consumer hasn't had enough money to save -- he hasn't felt wealthy enough.''

While consumer spending has often led economic recoveries in past years, Elisabeth Allison, senior economist with Data Resources Inc. in Lexington, Mass. , insists the consumer is being asked to play a more delicate and complex role than ever before. For the Reagan ''game plan'' to work, she says, consumers must work ''harder and smarter'' to increase productivity and save more, preferably in long-term stocks or bonds, to help stimulate investment.

''Consumers have to save in the right way and they can't save too much,'' she cautions.

In point of fact, most taxpayers have been saving very little until recently when their rate of saving moved close to 6 percent. The ideal rate for a modest recovery in the eyes of many economists is closer to 7 or 8 percent. But one key question in their eyes is how much of the money channeled into savings (in response to such lures as the newly broadened eligibility criteria for tax-deferred retirement accounts) is actually a transfer from old savings and how much stems from an increase in income. Economists note that when the All-Savers certificate was introduced last October, at the time of another tax cut, a full 85 percent of the funds going into them amounted to a transfer of savings.

Many economists do not view prospects for increased capital spending and new investment as strong. One reason, they say, is Washington's continued borrowing (pushing interest rates up in the process) from savings funds to finance government deficits. ''There's precious little left for productive investment,'' says Wharton's Mr. Berner.

Just as it matters to the degree and speed of economic recovery precisely how much consumers decide to save vs. spend, so it matters what they decide to spend their dollars on. While economists say that patterns of consumption -- such as reserving 20 percent of income for food -- have remained fairly constant over the years, they admit that continued postponement of big-ticket purchases, from housing to cars, could dampen recovery prospects. The fact that consumer debt is at a three-year low could conceivably lead to a surge in such purchases. The New York Conference Board's consumer Buying Plans Index, which surveys family plans to buy a house, car, major appliance, or carpeting, has moved up over the last two months. And Illinois's Continental Bank, among others, recently observed that the weakness in homes sales may at last have bottomed out. But experts warn that consumer behavior is never easy to forecast.

''If consumers spend too little on durable goods, particularly in threatened industries where a few companies are close to the edge,'' says Data Resources' Elisabeth Allison, ''those companies could default on their paper and could go belly up -- which might yet give us a really deep recession.''

Most economists now look to the second half of 1982 as the earliest date for any visible economic improvement. Retailers, who experienced sales gains this year of 9.3 percent which were largely canceled by inflation, are no longer talking of a spring recovery, for instance. And there are those who count even mid-1982 as too optimistic for a turnaround date. Monroe Greenstein, a retail sales analyst with Bear, Stearns & Co., cautions that there could still be changes such as an administration decision to rescind some of tax decrease slated for July. And Mr. Berner says that his firm is forecasting no real growth or pickup in business investment until 1983.

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