A few years into the global financial crisis, US unemployment remains high and the economy still appears fragile. Nevertheless, American consumers appear to be returning to their old ways. For years they were seen as the engine of global growth. Their consumption drove exports in countries around the world. However, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the unemployment rate in the United States soared to double figures, the collapse of property prices around the country eroded the wealth of many Americans and banks reined in their lending, while many borrowers cut their spending to pay down their debts. This appeared to set the scene for a change in the long-standing tradition of US consumer-led economic growth.
However, the latest personal consumption expenditure figures released a few weeks ago by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show another month of consumption growth in February. This is the fifth month in a row of strong personal consumption in the United States. Seen over the broad sweep of the last 50 years, the global financial crisis starts to look like a mere blip in an inexorable climb in personal consumption. (Note: the chart below uses a logarithmic scale so that a straight line indicates a steady rate of growth).
Focusing on the last five years reveals that, while consumption collapsed in mid-2008, by the end of that year consumption began to recover. A little shakily at first, consumers appear to have returned to the pattern seen before the crisis and by late 2009, total personal consumption had exceeded pre-crisis levels.
Looking at year-on-year consumption growth gives further insight into the underlying pattern. Growth peaked in the late 1970s, followed by a slowly declining smoothed trend* to growth rates just above 5% per annum. While the growth in consumption over the 12 months to February 2010 has not quite returned to the 5% level, that period includes weaker figures from early 2009. Annualizing quarterly growth over recent months gives figures back around the 5% mark.
Year-on-year Growth of US Personal Consumption (1959-2010)
This may simply be a bounce back to earlier consumption levels and growth may now slow once more. But, economists, policy-makers and America’s trade partners will all be watching closely to see whether indeed the US consumer has shrugged off the financial crisis and is set to recover its place as the driver of the world economy. This scenario seems all the more likely if consumers forget the lessons offered by the crisis about the perils of excessive debt and once again turn to borrowing to finance consumption.