Asking too much of U.S. consumers

Date: 6/12/2011

By Pedro Nicolaci da Costa Pedro Nicolaci Da Costa – Sun Jun 12, 4:28 pm ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Talk about getting it from all sides. Economists want Americans to cut down on debt and boost spending all at once, even as home values tumble and gasoline prices soar.

It may all be a bit too much for the average U.S. household, particularly with an already sluggish labor market stuttering again.

A raft of economic reports this week will help sort out just how bad things have gotten, and offer some hints as to whether the slowdown is temporary or the start of a trend.

"At this point in the cycle, everyone believed we'd be on the mend, but it looks like that's not the case," said William Larkin, portfolio manager of Cabot Money Management in Salem, Massachusetts, citing high levels of applications for new jobless benefits.

As goes the world's largest economy, so goes the world, though the relationship is hardly one–sided. Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have helped to keep oil prices high, putting a damper on U.S. consumer spending.

In Europe, Greece's debt saga continues to rage on with no clear resolution in sight. Even as European paymaster Germany demanded on Friday that private investors contribute to a second bailout for Greece, rating agencies have warned that any type of restructuring would likely be considered a default.

The aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami is also of crucial importance to the global outlook, since some economists believe it helps explain part of the recent softness.

U.S. Federal Reserve officials have remained cautiously optimistic, saying the economy will pick up in the second half of the year and will not need additional monetary support from an already highly stimulative central bank.

But their upbeat tone is perceptibly less self–assured. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke last week characterized the job market as "far from normal" after employment data showed only 54,000 net new jobs were added to the economy in May, while the jobless rate rose to 9.1 percent, the highest since December.


Kicking off a full calendar, U.S. retail sales on Tuesday are expected to show a 0.4 percent drop for May but a gain of 0.2 percent excluding autos, according to a Reuters poll of economists. Weakness in the auto sector may be due in part to supply chain disruptions following the Japanese disaster.

Also of keen interest will be two reports from regional Fed banks on manufacturing activity around their districts, since they offer an early glance into the economy's performance in June. Both are seen rising, but to unimpressive levels.

Any upsets could send already jittery financial markets into a tailspin. U.S. stocks, which fell sharply on Friday on concerns over global growth prospects, have posted six straight weeks of losses.

Japan this week will release data on machinery orders and revisions to industrial output for April. The Bank of Japan, which meets to set interest rates on Tuesday, will consider expanding a loan program aimed at supporting certain industries, according to sources.

Reports on U.S. industrial output and consumer sentiment will also be combed closely for signs that either business or consumer spending can steady a stumbling recovery.

Two other data releases from Washington will shed light on the nation's inflation picture.

High energy and food costs had until recently been rising rapidly, eating into consumer budgets. At the same time, wages have risen all too slowly, damaging household purchasing power while also preventing a more pervasive inflationary trend.

"As for the concerns of inflation hawks, the trend in wage growth provides absolutely no cause for alarm," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington.

(Reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Dan Grebler)


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