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For economy's sake, consumers pick a good time to spend

Consumers' willingness to spend is filling the void as business activity slows amid dull global growth and gridlocked budget talks in Washington.

November 23, 2012|By Walter Hamilton and Ricardo Lopez, Los Angeles Times
  • Consumers are reasserting themselves as the key driver of U.S. economic growth. Above, shoppers crowd into the Ann Taylor store at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa last year for Black Friday specials.
Consumers are reasserting themselves as the key driver of U.S. economic… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

As you pack into the mall today with hordes of other Black Friday shoppers, think of it as an act of economic patriotism.

With your shopping bags full of holiday gifts, you'll once again be playing a central role in the U.S. economy.

After retrenching in the early days of the recovery, consumers are reasserting themselves as the key driver of U.S. economic growth. And that's coming at an opportune time, given that other economic propellants such as manufacturing and exports have slowed.

"The consumer is allowing the economy to hang in there," said Brian Wesbury, chief economist at First Trust Advisors in Wheaton, Ill.

Consumer spending accounts for about 70% of economic activity, and the holiday season constitutes as much as 40% of annual retail sales.

Chastened Americans went into a rare defensive crouch following the recession and housing bubble, slashing their spending on all sorts of items.

Businesses picked up some of the slack. But that tide is weakening as business activity slows amid dull global growth and gridlocked budget talks in Washington.

Consumers are filling the void.

Their willingness to spend has been bolstered by improvement in the job and housing markets. Retail activity helped the economy muster a 2% annual growth rate in the third quarter. That's far from exuberant, but it would have been worse otherwise, experts say.

And with corporate executives fixated on the "fiscal cliff" drama over potential tax hikes and spending cuts, a robust holiday shopping season could provide a crucial economic counterbalance.

"Exports are down. Business investment is down," Wesbury said. "But the consumer was strong in the third quarter. The consumer was the reason the economy expanded."

The Conference Board, a business research group, said early this month that Americans' confidence in the economy reached its highest level in nearly five years in October. Many were encouraged by an improving labor market, the group said.

Holiday spending is forecast to rise 4.1% to $586.1 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. That's slightly below the 5.6% gain retailers enjoyed last year.

Experts say a big chunk of people's holiday budgets could be spent over Black Friday, the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season. Last year, consumers spent $52.4 billion during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, up from $45 billion in 2010.

The improvement is being paced by shoppers such as Susan Delgado, 38, a medical biller, who was at the Glendale Galleria this week with her sister.

Her family plans to visit relatives in the Sacramento area next month, their first out-of-town Christmas trip since her husband was laid off from an auto repair shop in 2010.

He found new work six months later but took a pay cut, forcing the couple to cut back on shopping and eating out. Feeling they've regained their financial footing, the couple have nearly doubled their gift budget to almost $1,000.

"You can't go home and not have gifts for the kids," Delgado said.

Andy Spyros, president of Handmade Galleries LA, a gift boutique in Sherman Oaks, expects this holiday shopping season to be the strongest since 2008, with shoppers willing to buy more expensive items.

"This season will be even better than last," Spyros said. "Everyone has their gift lists out again."

This holiday season, Spyros said she hopes to sell $40,000 worth of merchandise, almost one-third more than last year. And she hired two more employees recently.

Sentiment is similarly upbeat at the nation's retail giants.

Sears Holdings Corp. held a pre-Black Friday sale at stores last week and turnout was strong, said Brian Hanover, a spokesman.

"People are ready to shop," Hanover said.

Much of the improvement is coming from high-end shoppers shelling out on luxury items, said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at Nothing But Gold Productions. The middle class remains hesitant.

"The middle-income consumer is not willing to trade up," Sozzi said. "They're still not willing to go out and buy that $500 handbag on their credit card."

And as Black Friday demonstrates, everyone's after a bargain.

Consumer spending is "not hurting but by no means is this a consumer-spending recovery," said Chris Christopher, an economist at IHS Global Insight.

Other experts are more upbeat. After whittling down their debts in the last few years, consumers are more willing to open their wallets, optimists say.

Wesbury pays close attention to discretionary income — the amount of money consumers have left after paying regular monthly expenses such as rent, debt payments or property taxes. By one measure, discretionary income is the best it's been since 1984.

"We're going into the holiday season in good shape," Wesbury said. "Consumers are in a lot better financial shape than a lot of people believe."

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