...but surge waits on consumer spree

By , Business correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

''The retail business is so poor that . . . even shoplifters are losing interest,'' quips an economic analyst, who asked for anonymity.

Weak retail sales figures, released Tuesday, are just the latest in a variety of signs that consumers are still sitting on the economy's sidelines. Statistics on consumer credit and savings tell the same story.

Most analysts are convinced that the recovery President Reagan predicted in his speech last night will not take place unless consumers return in droves to stores, auto dealerships, and real estate offices.

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One things that may help lure consumers back into the market is the downward spiral in interest rates. This week several major banks, led by Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, cut their prime lending rates from 13 to 12 percent. The ''prime'' is a base against which other loan charges are calculated.

At the same time, the interest ceiling on home loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration dropped from 13.5 to 12.5 percent.

But many analysts believe that even more significant interest rate reductions will be needed before a consumer buying spree begins.

''Until we have sizable drops in both mortgage rates and consumer interest rates, housing and autos, the big twin engines of the economy, will continue to misfire,'' says Marc Goloven, a vice-president and economist at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company.

Recent interest rate reductions ''will help rebuild consumer confidence but they will not spur a major turnaround in the economy,'' says Terry McEvoy, research vice-president at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., a brokerage. ''Consumers still do not feel confident. The primary swing in the economy will come when unemployment rates top out and start to head in a better direction.''

It is clear that despite a stock market rally and lower interest rates, buyers are still uneasy. ''People are nervous about their job security and they are not optimistic about family income,'' says Pia Newman, a research analyst with the Conference Board, a corporate research organization that studies consumer confidence.

A recent Conference Board study found 55 percent of those surveyed thought business conditions were ''bad,'' up from 51 percent in August. Meanwhile, consumer buying plans were down sharply compared with August.

''There cannot be a recovery without the consumer propelling it,'' says Robert J. Genetski, an economist with Harris Trust & Savings Bank. Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of total spending in the country, with government expenditures and business purchases accounting for the rest.

Some forecasters do think spending will rebound slightly by December. ''We do see a turnaround toward year's end,'' said Mr. Goloven at Manufacturers Hanover. ''But we are looking for only the most subdued of recoveries'' until interest rates drop dramatically and high unemployment rates stop scaring potential buyers.

Forecasters at the J.C. Penney Company are among those expecting an upturn by Christmas. ''Christmas will not be a barnburner, but it will be decent,'' a Penney spokesman said.

No rebound in consumer buying was evident in September, when retail sales rose 1 percent over their August level. The figures were buoyed by a 4 percent gain in auto sales. But analysts noted that the higher auto volume was the result of factory incentives to dealers aimed at moving large unsold stocks of cars.

Over the past year, retail dollar sales have climbed only 1.9 percent, less than enough to offset inflation. As a result, the volume of goods sold has actually declined.

Ironically, those consumers who are not unemployed are in excellent financial shape, data show.

The purchasing power of consumers' after-tax incomes rose 2 percent between July 1981 and July 1982, Citibank calculates, as a result of lower inflation, higher interest earned on savings, and federal tax cuts.

Meanwhile, consumers are devoting less of their higher incomes to paying debt. Consumer credit in August expanded at less than a 1 percent rate, down from growth rates of 2 percent in July and 4 3/4 percent in August. The percentage of disposable income that consumers are using to pay off installment debt is down to 12.2 percent, from 14.2 percent in 1980, according to figures from Dean Witter Reynolds, another brokerage.

Fatter savings accounts are taking the place of purchases for many consumers. Personal savings as a percentage of disposable income averaged 6.4 percent in 1981. By July the savings rate had risen to 7.1 percent. And some analysts estimate that recently consumers may have been socking away up to 8.1 percent of their income.

''When the unemployment rate is rising, people react defensively and tend to push up the savings rate or cut the growth in spending,'' says Alan Murray, a Citibank economist.

The decline in interest rates that President Reagan cites as evidence that things are getting better may be the very thing that keeps consumers from boosting their buying, at least in the short term. When inflation was rising, people tended to purchase big-ticket items like cars and houses as soon as they could because prices were expected to keep climbing.

''This year they don't have to do that,'' said Pia Newman, the Conference Board analyst. ''They can save because they know a big-ticket item will be relatively stable in price.'' They may decide to wait ''until interest rates come down more.''

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