Wanted: Wealthy Spenders to Boost Recovery

A shopper carries Saks Fifth Avenue bags up Fifth Avenue in New York City.
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A shopper carries Saks Fifth Avenue bags up Fifth Avenue in New York City.

The shaky economic recovery may depend on wealthy consumers to keep spending — and they may not have the confidence to do the job.

That's one upshot of Friday's report on second-quarter economic growth, which showed U.S. gross domestic product rose 1.5 percent, down from 2 percent in the first quarter and a newly revised 4.1 percent in the last three months of 2011. Growth in investment is slowing and government spending is down.

That leaves consumption, which was 71 percent of GDP last year, to pick up the slack.

But consumers with the most to spend have just as little confidence in the economy as everyone else, some surveys show. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Survey of Consumers shows that the consumer confidence index among those who make more than $75,000 annually has fallen 20 percent since last year. Even confidence among millionaires has dropped to a nine-month low, according to market researcher Spectrem Group.

And it is beginning to show up in spending, too. A Gallup survey says consumers making $90,000 or more report spending $20 less per day on discretionary expenses in June than a year ago.

High-end spending "was hurt more by the recession," said Scott Hoyt, a Moody's Analytics economist who tracks consumer spending. "There's definitely some of that still going on, especially in jewelry."

The extent of the problem with richer consumers is tough to quantify, because the government doesn't break out retail spending growth based on demographics, Hoyt said.

Jewelers Tiffany and Blue Nile each missed second-quarter earnings forecasts by a nickel a share. Tiffany shares have dropped more than $12 to $57.43 since April, while Blue Nile has dropped nearly $10 to $23.96.

Luxury carmakers have no such woes, at least so far. Luxury-car sales are up 14 percent this year to more than 500,000 vehicles through June, according to Autodata.

"We haven't really changed our spending," said Chris Martin of Dallas, a senior marketing manager at a home-security firm who said he replaced his BMW with a similar car last summer.

But the car isn't a sign of a major splurge, or any overall cutback, he said. He and his partner are not making major changes either way in their spending.

"We've got nothing to spur spending."