The majority of Americans aren't benefiting much from our current recovery.
There is a high degree of anxiety over the financial preparedness to eventually punch out for good, according to a recent poll by CBS News. Consumers earning under $50,000 a year were the most worried, with many finding it hard to juggle saving and paying their bills. Two-thirds of that group said they don't think they're saving enough for retirement.
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I have two concerns:
1) The widening income and wealth gaps, and
2) Consumers' ill-preparedness for retirement.
While the more well-to-do have benefited immensely from a resurgent stock market, those middle-class consumers more heavily dependent on their paychecks are showing much less improvement in their financial situations. Median household income is hovering around 1995 levels, and relatively high-paying and full-time jobs (with benefits) are still hard to come by. And although consumer confidence has been improving in recent years, the differences are stark between the confidence reported by higher-income folks ($50K+) and lower-income folks (less than $50K).
The chart below shows the trends in consumer confidence by income level as reported by the Conference Board.
"The spread in consumer confidence between households earning above $50,000 and the average confidence level of brackets below this income level has grown to 46 points – versus an average of 32 points prior to the Great Recession," noted Credit Suisse economist Michael Exstein, in a Nov. 7 note to clients.
I think economic growth will remain at sub-par levels until incomes, confidence and spending increase at higher rates among those in the middle class. It is the masses that can truly move the economic needle and get us to sustainable economic growth of greater than 3 percent.
Unfortunately, these same masses need to pay down still-high debt levels while increasing their savings for retirement. The consumer savings rate has been trending up since the post-Great-Depression lows in 2005, preceding the financial crisis. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, consumers saved 5.5 percent of disposable income in the third quarter of 2014, compared to the low of 2.2 percent in the third quarter of 2005. We think savings rates will continue to move higher over time, thereby putting a ceiling on economic growth for a number of years.
Take heed, the news is not all bad! The drop in gasoline prices to below $3 per gallon will serve as an effective tax break — and a very large one — for all those who drive. I've heard estimates that the average driver could save $500 or more each year if gas prices maintain their current levels.
This could lead to a very Merry Christmas for many retailers. However, it should also be noted that lower gas prices are not as unambiguously positive as they had been in the past. The benefits of low gas prices could be partially offset by the negative effects of low oil prices on domestic energy companies. U.S. energy companies have generated many new jobs over the past few years. If shale drilling projects start getting canceled as a result of lower oil prices, it could create a further headwind to strong and more sustainable economic growth.
Commentary by Michael K. Farr, president of Farr, Miller & Washington and a CNBC contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_K_Farr.