Can the wealthy save holiday spending?
The release of the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog has prompted the annual drooling over extravagant gifts. There's the $1.85 million "diamond experience" that takes the buyer to London and Namibia. There's the $150,000 falconry kit. And the outdoor TV that pops up from the lawn.
Just the thing for the billionaire, outdoor TV watcher, or falconer who has everything.
But the real question this holiday season is whether consumers—especially wealthy ones—will spend.
The top 5 percent of consumers account for more than 37 percent of all consumer outlays, according to economist Mark Zandi. Increasingly, the wealthy are the only ones with money to spend, so they have an especially outsized influence.
The rich have both the money and the confidence to spend. A BMO Private Bank study of American millionaires (those with investible assets of $1 million or more) shows that 61 percent say they are better off today than they were before the recession. Only 7 percent say they are worse off.
(Read more: What gives? Millionaire optimism soars to new high)
The study also found that the wealthy are quickly returning to precrisis spending levels. Fully 86 percent are back to peak spending on entertainment and leisure activities, while spending on travel has rebounded for 83 percent. More than three-quarters are spending again on clothing and accessories.
"This represents an indication of the level of confidence they have in the country and also helps spur further economic growth," said Terry Jenkins, president and CEO of BMO Private Bank.
(Read more: Rich in a land grab: Top landowners boost holdings)
Yet as we've learned during the past four years, spending by the wealthy is highly discretionary and can stop overnight with falling stock markets. While the rich may be spending today, a debt crisis in Washington and decline in stocks could crush their confidence. And that could make for a weak Christmas shopping season.
—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.
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