The great American spending spree

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As the pumpkins, sweet-wrappers and ghostly garbs are cleared away, forecasters expect American Halloween spending bills to have broken records. The average shopper was projected to spend $108 on sweets, costumes and decorations during this trick-or-treating season — with total expenditure set to exceed $12bn. But even before the October 31 festivities, it has been clear that the US consumer is experiencing a sugar rush.

America’s economy grew at a 4.9 per cent annualised rate in the third quarter; the fastest since 2021. With consumer spending accounting for two-thirds of the economy, much of the jump is down to a surprise shopping spree. Retail sales registered their sixth-straight month of growth in September. The resilience of the US consumer defies the gloomy economic backdrop — 18 months of high inflation, rising interest rates and plenty of uncertainty. Real consumption spending has grown almost 2 percentage points more than private forecasters expected this time last year.

What explains the robustness? Bank of America thinks a phenomenon that it calls “funflation” is responsible. It notes a greater willingness to spend on live entertainment and experiences, stemming from pent-up demand, savings and changing consumer preferences. Indeed, over the summer, the dual release of movies Barbie and Oppenheimer, dubbed “Barbenheimer”, became one of the biggest openings on record, despite scepticism over the cinema industry’s prospects following Covid-19. Morgan Stanley estimated that Barbenheimer and concert tours by Taylor Swift and Beyoncé added $8.5bn to the US economy in the third quarter.

But consumer resilience comes down to more than the “fear of missing out” on the buzz surrounding box office events. Though the jobs market is now cooling, employment and wages have held up better than expected, despite the US Federal Reserve’s tightening. The lowest paid Americans have experienced the strongest pay growth too. Many have also tapped into savings accumulated during the pandemic, which were bolstered by government stimulus checks. This has driven stellar spending on electronics, furniture and home equipment since 2020. Meanwhile, the prevalence of long-term fixed-rate mortgages has sheltered homeowners from higher rates.

There are signs of strain. Consumer confidence has dipped, partly on the back of higher gasoline prices. Credit card delinquency rates are rising, lockdown savings are being drained, and student loan repayments are back, after a three-year pause. Higher interest rates will bite more in the coming months and squeeze spending on goods, and services — which account for the bulk of personal consumption.

Beyond the inevitable Fed-induced economic slowdown, “funflation” could prove to be more than just a pandemic hangover. The latest confidence data showed that while buying plans for items such as cars, homes and appliances had fallen, as expected with high borrowing costs, vacation intentions were at their highest since 2020.

Generational preferences are a factor. A recent survey by Experian, a credit scoring company, found that around 60 per cent of young Americans — the so-called Gen Z and Millennials — would prefer to spend money on “life experiences” now rather than save. As they age, they will exert a greater influence on spending patterns.

Yet, targeted social media marketing, the rapid growth in celebrity fan bases via apps such as TikTok, and the faster online transmission of the “fomo” effect suggests that demand for experiences — including travel, concerts and dining out — could be more intergenerational and price inelastic than economists expect. If that is indeed the case, the Fed will need to add another one to the list of potential long-term inflationary pressures.

Mike Ibanoz

Mike Ibanoz is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who has spent the better part of two decades covering gadgets and apps, and helping people make smarter tech decisions.

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