Strong spending still defies economic gravity

Consumer confidence in future economic conditions fell slightly in a survey last week.

Outside Fenway Park, the sales of pizza and pennants are a barometer not just of early-season Red Sox passion but also of consumer pep. So far, the spending public seems to be defying gravity like a Tim Wakefield knuckle ball.

"This year should be fine, as long as the team does well," says Jeff Swartz, manager of the sprawling Red Sox Team Store across from the ballpark. Even though it's still hours before game time, the store is doing brisk trade in jerseys, caps, and sweat shirts.

From Fenway to Fresno, consumer spending is strong, but that momentum now faces crucial tests. Fuel prices are soaring. Home prices, a key source of family wealth, are stalling. Mortgage rates are climbing.

That means the economy is at a point of inflection. Where it goes from here is up to consumers, because their spending makes up 70 percent of US economic activity.

Most economists expect some slowdown, but not an outright reversal of direction. But millions of households may feel squeezed in the process.

"We're going from above average to a little bit below average," in terms of economic growth, predicts Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, a business research group in New York.

"It isn't that bad," he says, except that it comes as many workers worry about whether their pay will keep pace with inflation. "The concern ... [is] that their pay isn't growing all that fast, and probably isn't going to grow all that fast."

A survey of consumer sentiment late last week highlighted the feelings of uncertainty - and the prospect of a slowdown.

The University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment for April, at a reading of 89.2, was virtually unchanged from March. The portion of the index that measures present conditions rose to 111, but the part that measures confidence in future conditions fell a notch, to 75.

Other parts of the economy - exports and investment by businesses - can probably pick up some of the slack if consumer activity falls below a typical pace. And for now, spending by households remains solid.

A government report on retail sales, also released last week, showed purchases up 0.6 percent in March.

On the pavement of Yawkey Way, as fans wait for a glimpse of arriving players, they are also doing their part to keep retailers busy - buying sausages, programs, and parking spaces.

Dave Luft and Lely Gulledge came to Fenway from the nether reaches of "Red Sox nation."

He works at Dunkin' Donuts in Hartford, Conn. She's studying criminal justice in Newport, R.I. Are they worried about the job market, the housing market, or other pocketbook concerns?

"Just gas," Mr. Luft says.

As they drive between Hartford and Newport, they both notice the dent that the recent price jump has put in their wallets.

As consumers pay more for gas, they have less available to spend on other things - a concern that showed up in last week's consumer survey.

"The head winds from higher gasoline prices and interest rates are picking up intensity," particularly for moderate income earners, writes economist Brian Bethune of Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., in an analysis for clients.

When the Federal Reserve began raising short-term interest rates in 2004, the impact on longer-term borrowing was muted at first. But recently, home mortgages have spiked.

A 30-year fixed-rate loan now carries an average 6.49 percent interest rate, up from 5.91 percent a year ago, according to Freddie Mac. Rising rates affect both new borrowers and some homeowners whose adjustable-rate mortgages are now heading up.

Again, more money for debt payments means less for other things. Sales of some retail categories such as electronic goods dropped slightly in March.

First-quarter economic growth is likely to be very strong - offsetting a slow pace of GDP at the end of 2005. But "our trend into the second quarter is not so hot," says Andrew Tilton, an economist in New York for investment house Goldman Sachs.

He has tried to model the pace of consumer "cash flow" - discretionary spending power in all US households - over the next year or more. By the end of 2006, he reckons, the pool of available cash could be shrinking moderately.

To arrive at the number, he starts with overall personal income, adds expected borrowing, and subtracts spending on taxes, debt service, energy, and food.

This doesn't mean consumer spending will fall. Many shoppers, especially those with higher incomes, find ways to keep spending even during lean times. But it does suggest some challenges ahead for the economy.

The interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, designed to head off a possible flare-up of inflation, creates a recipe for a pause similar to the mid-1990s.

Rate increases in 1994 were controversial, and slowed the economy sharply. But instead of triggering a recession, they set the stage for the economic expansion to continue for a full decade, until 2001.

"That's a very appropriate parallel," Mr. Tilton says. "You're trying to repeat that, but ideally not in quite as abrupt a fashion. You don't want to abruptly slow the economy and raise the risk of a recession."

In recent speeches, some Fed policymakers have hinted that their current cycle of tightening rates is nearly over. They know the policy changes already made will continue to affect the economy for months to come. "Typically you think about a one- or two-year lag," says Tilton, "for the full impact to be felt."

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