Rapid consumer spending helps push the savings rate to lowest level since 1933


Monday, January 30th 2006, 9:41 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ Consumer spending rose at a rapid pace in December, far outpacing income growth, a development that helped to push the savings' rate for the year down to the lowest level since the Great Depression.

The Commerce Department said Monday that consumer spending rose by 0.9 percent in December, more than double the 0.4 percent rise in incomes.

To finance the increased spending, Americans dipped further into their savings, pushing the savings rate for all of 2005 into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent. That was the lowest annual savings rate since a decline of 1.5 percent in 1933, a year in which the country was struggling to cope with the Great Depression.

A price gauge that excludes food and energy rose by a tiny 0.1 percent in December, down from a 0.2 percent rise in November. This inflation index linked to consumer spending is closely watched by officials at the Federal Reserve.

The central bank meets on Tuesday, when it is expected it will boost interest rates for a 14th time. However, many economists believe those rate hikes are drawing to a close with perhaps another quarter-point hike at the March 28 meeting as the central bank is starting to see the impact of the previous rate hikes in a slowing economy.

The government reported on Friday that overall economic growth slowed to a 1.1 percent rate in the final three months of the year, the most sluggish pace in three years.

That slowdown was heavily influenced by a big drop for the quarter in spending on new cars, which had surged in the summer as automakers offered attractive sales incentives.

A negative savings rate means that Americans spent all their disposable income, the amount left over after paying taxes, and dipped into their past savings to finance their purchases. For the month, the savings rate fell to 0.7 percent, the largest one-month level since a decline of 3.4 percent in August.

The 0.5 percent decline in savings for the year followed a savings rate of 1.8 percent in 2004. There have only been three years that the savings rate has fallen into negative territory. The savings rate dipped by 0.9 percent in 1932 and the record 1.5 percent decline in 1933, years when Americans exhausted their savings to try to meet expenses in the face of soaring unemployment as the country struggled with the worst economic crisis in its history.

One major reason that consumers felt confident in spending all of their disposable incomes and dipping into savings last year was that a booming housing market made them feel more wealthy. As their home prices surged at double-digit rates, that created what economists call a ``wealth effect'' that supported greater spending.

The concern, however, is that the housing boom of the past five years is beginning to quiet down with the rise in mortgage rates. Analysts are closing watching to see whether consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of total economic activity, falters in 2006 as Americans, already carrying heavy debt loads, don't feel as wealthy as the price appreciation of their homes would seem to indicate.

For December, the 0.4 percent rise in incomes was in line with Wall Street expectations. It followed a similar 0.4 percent increase in November, with both months lower than the 0.6 percent rise in October.

The 0.9 percent rise in spending with slightly above the expectation for a 0.8 percent increase and was almost double the 0.5 percent increase in November.