Sunday, December 30, 2007

The aftermath of the holiday spending season

Last month I wrote about expectations for holiday sales among US retailers and how this reflects general economic conditions. Well, preliminary results are in.

Spending from Thanksgiving to Christmas rose just 3.6 percent over last year, the weakest performance in at least four years, according to MasterCard Advisors, a division of the credit card company. By comparison, sales grew 6.6 percent in 2006 and 8.7 percent in 2005.

[...]Excluding gas purchases, overall holiday sales rose a lackluster 2.4 percent, the credit card company said.

Well, in the comments of my last post on the subject, we discussed how results for Black Friday were actually positive. I made some predictions and considered some possibilities:

Well, there's a few possibilities for this apparent good news. First, let me say that given the credit crunch and higher cost of living expenses than last year plus the fact that real wages still have not grown for the average American, I do not believe that the answer is simply that Americans have more money. But that's my opinion and I haven't seen any numbers that show how much free spending cash the average American has. It is, although unlikely in my mind, possible that over this year Americans have been saving more money than they have in previous years.

If this does not reflect more buying on credit, it's possible that some of these purchases come from money that was not spent earlier this year, and if you read in my post retail sales were down across the board for several months preceding November. Another likely factor is that since people have less money to spend, more people made a point of Black Friday sales than had in the past because they are maximizing what little money they have.

And what does the article say?

Eboni Jones, 32, of Windsor, Conn., epitomized the problem for stores.

A phone company manager, she waited until Christmas Eve to make a single purchase at a major chain store this season, favoring Web retailers and designer outlet stores offering deep bargains.

Shortly after my Black Friday post, I wrote about the coming credit crunch. Well, it looks like all that credit is finally catching up with the US consumer. Look at this:

Americans are falling behind on their credit card payments at an alarming rate, sending delinquencies and defaults surging by double-digit percentages in the last year and prompting warnings of worse to come.

[...]Experts say these signs of the deterioration of finances of many households are partly a byproduct of the subprime mortgage crisis and could spell more trouble ahead for an already sputtering economy.

[...]But what is coming into sharper focus from the detailed monthly SEC filings from the trusts is a snapshot of the worrisome state of Americans' ability to juggle growing and expensive credit card debt.

The trend carried into November. As of Friday, all of the trusts that filed reports for the month show increases in both delinquencies and defaults over November 2006, and many show sequential increases from October.

Basically we've got a complete picture here. Sales are not going to pick up in the early part of next year. While solutions are being offered to the subprime mortgage crisis, they're not comprehensive and will not serve to keep most people out of bankruptcy and all that goes with it. The credit crunch was coming anyway, but before the supbrime mortgage exploded into a national economic issue, we were still talking about what effect it might have. Now we know. Economists have been fearful for years that at some point Americans' debt would exceed their ability to service it. We have reached that point. The subprime crisis did not create this situation, but did help speed it along.

In March, when the subprime mortgage situation wasn't yet a crisis, I was writing about how Bernanke was giving an optimistic assessment of the economy. Looks like he was totally wrong.

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