The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Cautious but steady consumers buoying hopes for economy

- By Christophe­r Rugaber and Anne D'innocenzio

WASHINGTON — Call it the Goldilocks consumer.

Defying high inflation and sharp interest rate hikes, Americans keep spending — a trend that, if sustained, could keep the economy humming just enough to help avoid a much-predicted recession.

At the same time, surveys show that consumers on average don't expect today's still-high inflation to last for very long. That confidence could lead them to moderate their spending habits and wage demands, which would help slow inflation over time.

If the combinatio­n lasts, it could make it easier for the Federal Reserve to tame inflation without derailing the economy. As inflation eased, the Fed would be able to curtail its rate hikes, making a recession less likely.

“The economy is in the middling phase,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “It's not too hot but not too cold, especially for retail. Things are not in the boom phase, but neither have they collapsed.”

Nearly three years after the pandemic caused a brief but brutal recession and then a powerful rebound, the economy appears to have entered a phase in which growth might not be so forceful as to fuel high inflation. One reason is that consumers are continuing to spend — just not at breakneck speed.

Consider the spending habits of Francisco Santana, who was stocking up on groceries last week at a Walmart in North Bergen, N.J. A New York City resident, Santana, 39, bought several hundred dollars' worth of bacon, sugar, hamburger buns and cream cheese — among the necessitie­s he said should feed his family of five for a couple of weeks.

Yet Santana says he's spending with caution. The inflation surge had led him to shift his grocery shopping from local chains to Walmart. He found a package of strawberri­es there for $5, he said, that might have cost twice that at some other stores he's shopped.

“I'm looking for quality and budget,” he said. “Inflation's still a big issue.”

Consumer surveys, closely tracked by the Fed, show that two years into the worst bout of inflation in four decades, Americans' expectatio­ns for future inflation remain modest and by some measures nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.

Lower inflation expectatio­ns matter because they can become self-perpetuati­ng: When people expect inflation to stay high, they typically demand and receive higher pay. Businesses then often charge their customers more to offset their higher labor costs, further fueling inflation. In that way, rising inflation expectatio­ns can turn high prices from a temporary disruption, like an oil supply crunch, into something longer-lasting.

But lower inflation expectatio­ns can reverse that dynamic and help cool inflation.

A survey by the New York Federal Reserve Bank earlier this week found that the typical consumer expects inflation to be just 2.7 percent in three years, down from 4.2 percent in the fall of 2021 and barely above the level in January 2020. That's far below the current inflation rate of 6.4 percent. Shorter-term inflation expectatio­ns are higher: The median consumer expects inflation of 5 percent in a year. Still, that's down from a peak of 6.8 percent last June.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States