Nov 21, 2020 - Economy

The surprisingly strong U.S. consumer

Illustration of quarters as weights on a barbell

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Most Americans are doing surprisingly well, financially, in the face of a major pandemic raging across the country.

Why it matters: The health of the U.S. consumer is one of the main reasons why a second stimulus is perceived to be much less urgent than the first one was.

Where it stands: Don’t hold your breath for another stimulus deal before President-elect Biden takes office. Congress is on recess next week, and is only in session for another few weeks before breaking again for the December holidays, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.

  • That leaves precious little time to get anything passed before the end of the year. Most lawmakers admit there’s a slim chance both parties reach a compromise on a comprehensive COVID relief bill before Biden is sworn in.
  • There’s a greater chance that some provisions get tied to a government funding deal, which must pass before the end of the year to avoid a shutdown, but substantial negotiations have yet to take place.

By the numbers: Americans' disposable income was $15.7 trillion per year in September, up significantly from its pre-crisis level. Average earnings are $29.50 per hour, up from $28.69 in March.

  • The total amount borrowed has fallen, partly because Americans managed to save 14.3% of their income in September. That's roughly double the pre-crisis savings rate. And credit card balances are plunging.
  • Bloomberg summed up the data last week, under the headline "The American Consumer Is Flush With Cash After Paying Down Debt." Bonds backed by consumer debt are more expensive now than they were pre-crisis.

What they're saying: “The consumer has clearly come back," says Steve Sadove, Mastercard Senior Advisor and a former CEO of Saks. "Early on, the stimulus had a big effect on the consumer, especially the lower-end consumer. As we've gone into the latter parts of the recovery, higher-income consumers are starting to spend again.”

The other side: Not all Americans are doing well. Millions are unemployed and going hungry, and vital crisis-era benefits are scheduled to expire at Christmas.

  • The broad economy remains well below potential, and won't return to its pre-crisis level any time soon. Many sectors, including hospitality, travel, and state and local government, are struggling mightily with no real light at the end of the tunnel.

The bottom line: A second round of stimulus is by no means assured. But if it happens, expect the bulk of the money to go to small businesses, other companies hit hard by the pandemic, and the unemployed.

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