At malls from New Jersey to California, shoppers are snapping up electronics and furniture, as fears of joblessness yield to exuberance over rising stock prices. Tractor trailers and railroad cars haul swelling quantities of goods through transportation corridors, generating paychecks for truckers and repair crews.
On the factory floor, production is expanding, a point underscored by government data released Friday showing a hefty increase in March for orders of long-lasting manufactured items. In apartment towers and on cul-de-sacs, sales of new homes surged in March, climbing by 27 percent, amplifying hopes that a wrenching real estate disaster may finally be releasing its grip on the national economy.
After the worst downturn since the Great Depression, signs of recovery are mounting — albeit tinged with ambiguity. Despite worries that American consumers might hunker down for years — spooked by debt, lost savings and unemployment — thriftiness has given way to the outlines of a new shopping spree: households are replacing cars, upgrading home furnishings and amassing gadgets.
Many economists estimate that consumer spending — which makes up some 70 percent of American economic activity — swelled by 4 percent during the first three months of the year, more than the double the pace once anticipated. Some have nudged upward their estimates for economic growth to more than 3 percent this year.
“Consumers are showing extraordinary resilience,” said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand out there that is now being unleashed. The whole supply chain system is now being revitalized.”
While few dispute signs of recovery across much of the economy, significant debate remains on how robust and sustained it will be. The lingering effects of the financial crisis have some economists envisioning a long stretch of sluggish growth.
But recent months have delivered a stream of news bolstering the notion of a more vigorous recovery. Technology companies have racked up substantial sales. After a decade of painful decline, manufacturing is tentatively adding jobs. Retail sales increased by 9.1 percent in March at established stores compared with a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters, marking the seventh consecutive month of growth. Exports swelled in the first two months of the year by nearly 15 percent compared with a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department.
Still, much of the improvement appears the result of the nearly $800 billion government stimulus program. As that package is largely exhausted late this year, further expansion may hinge on whether consumers keep spending. That probably depends on the job market, which remains weak.
“The recovery is under way, and it’s better than expected, but it hasn’t become self-sustaining because the job market hasn’t developed yet,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”
In a sign of the anxieties still gnawing at households, the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index this month plunged to a preliminary level of 69.5 compared with 73.6 in March.
Still, even that number represented a substantial gain over the record low of 55.3 reached in November 2008. And many economists dismiss such surveys as indicative of what people think, as opposed to what they do.
What they are doing increasingly is shopping.
“I’m certainly interested in spending now that the stock market seems so relaxed,” said Dan Schrenk, an information technology consultant, as he stood outside a Best Buy store in the Portland suburb of Beaverton.
Last year, Mr. Schrenk’s income declined as local companies put off servicing computer systems. He and his wife cut back on dinners out and purchases.
But in recent weeks, Mr. Schrenk’s stock portfolio has expanded. He has picked up five new clients.
“I’m feeling very optimistic,” he said. “People are just far more interested in spending money.”
So, there he was, shopping for an iPad.
On the other side of the country, at the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, N.J., Marie Bauer, who sells clothing for a living, was feeling similarly emboldened.
“I’m working more now,” she said. “I bought myself a watch.”