American shoppers have a way of rallying when the holidays roll around. But years after the Great Recession, consumers' budgets remain badly squeezed by flat wages, higher payroll taxes and a weak job market.
"It's been a tough year for consumers overall," said Target Chief Financial Officer John Mulligan. "They started the year with the payroll tax increase, and lower and middle-income consumers bore the brunt of that. They were already stressed. The economy has improved slowly over time, but it's been a choppy recovery for sure."
Choppy indeed. With the economy growing at just 2.2 percent since the recession ended in June 2009, there aren't enough good-paying jobs for the millions of Americans out of work or looking for more hours.
Much of the growth in new jobs is in relatively low-wage, low-skilled industries such as retailing and restaurants. Even with the growth in those sectors, there aren't enough jobs to go around—and won't be until overall growth picks up.
"The improvement in the employment and improvement in labor markets has been slower than I'd like to see," said Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren. "We need to see growth much closer to 3 percent than 2 percent if we want to get to full employment in a reasonable time period."
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Though the latest read on GDP showed the economy expanding by 2.8 percent in the third quarter, that isn't likely to cheer up Fed officials much. Too much of the growth came from a build-up in inventories—goods sitting in warehouses and on store shelves that consumers aren't buying.
Final sales rose just 2.0 percent, and overall spending inched up just 1.5 percent, the smallest gain in two years, according to Band of America Merrill Lynch economists Ethan Harris and Joshua Dennerlein.
"In other words, the economy remains stuck in the mud," they wrote in a research note Thursday.
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American households apparently caught a break in September,based on the latest reports on jobs and income. The government reported that 204,000 new jobs were created in September—and personal income rose by 0.5 percent, after similar gains in August.
But the extra income didn't free up consumers wallets.The data also showed that—adjusted for inflation—consumer spending inched up just 0.1 percent in September after rising 0.2 percent in August.
While housing prices have slowly recovered in many parts of the country, mortgage applications remain sluggish, especially for younger first-time home buyers. That weakness spills over into sales of a number of related categories of goods and services—from new appliances to homeowners insurance.
Other industries feeling profit pressure are tightening payrolls. That includes the health-care sector, which produced a steady stream of new jobs even through the depths of the Great Recession.