U.S. consumer spending beat expectations; outlook uncertain

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer spending increased more than expected in September, but decreasing benefits for millions of unemployed Americans and a resurgence in COVID-19 cases across the nation could crimp spending in the fourth quarter.

FILE PHOTO: An H&M store has sale signs in the window in New York City, U.S., August 11, 2016. REUTERS/Joe White

The report from the Commerce Department on Friday also showed inflation remaining muted last month, which could allow the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates near zero for a while to aid the recovery from the COVID-19 recession as fiscal stimulus runs out. More than $3 trillion in government pandemic relief, which included a weekly unemployment benefits subsidy, spurred record economic growth in the third quarter.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two thirds of U.S. economic activity, increased 1.4% last month after gaining 1% in August. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast consumer spending rising 1% in September.

Consumers boosted purchases of goods like new motor vehicles, clothing and footwear. They also lifted spending on healthcare, membership clubs, as well as outlays at sports centers, parks, theaters, and museums. Still, consumer spending remains below its level at the start of the year, held back by outlays on services like air travel and hotel accommodation.

Wall Street’s main indexes opened lower. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

The data was included in Thursday’s advance gross domestic product report for the third quarter, which showed the economy rebounding at a historic 33.1% annualized rate. That followed a 31.4% pace of contraction the second quarter, the deepest since the government started keeping records in 1947.

A jaw-dropping 40.7% pace of growth in consumer spending accounted for 76.3% to the bounce back in GDP. The economy remains 3.5% below its level at the end of 2019 and analysts expect the gap to be closed in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Much of the spending last quarter was driven by billions of dollars in government transfers, including a $600 weekly unemployment subsidy and a one-off $1,200 check to households.

The $600 weekly unemployment supplement expired in July and was replaced with a $300 weekly subsidy, whose funding mostly ran out in September. There is no deal in sight for another rescue package. Still, personal income rebounded 0.9% in September after falling 2.5% in August. It was boosted by gains in wages, rental income and other government social benefits.

Americans are also dipping into savings to fund spending. The saving rate slipped to a still high 14.3% from 14.8% in August. It peaked at record 33.6% in April.

Despite the stronger-than-expected jump in consumer spending last month, inflation remained benign.

The personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding the volatile food and energy components rose 0.2% after climbing 0.3% in August. In the 12 months through September, the so-called core PCE price index increased 1.5% after advancing 1.4% in August.

The core PCE index is the preferred inflation measure for the Fed’s 2% target, which is now a flexible average.

The tame inflation environment was underscored by a separate report from the Labor Department on Friday showing the Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labor costs, rose 0.5% in the third quarter after gaining by the same margin in the second quarter.

That lowered the year-on-year rate of increase to 2.4% from 2.7% in the second quarter. The ECI is widely viewed by policymakers and economists as one of the better measures of labor market slack and a predictor of core inflation as it adjusts for composition and job quality changes.

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