Shaken consumers rein in spending
Closed wallets do little to stoke recovery
John Bresnihan was going to buy a new car - until fears of another recession gave him cold feet.
“I was feeling more optimistic before, but the economy’s turning again for the worse,’’ said Bresnihan, 33, a social worker from Belmont. “I feel like I can’t get into a big purchase right now.’’
Consumers like Bresnihan are a key reason policy makers, analysts, and financial markets are increasingly worried about the direction of the US economy. The rate of consumer spending - which drives about two-thirds of economic activity - fell sharply in the second quarter, according to a recent report from the Commerce Department. Weak consumer spending underlies what has been a lackluster and now slowing recovery. Should consumers continue to pull back, it could push the nation into a deeper slump.
The recent stock market turmoil is almost certainly going to weigh heavily on consumer confidence. Typically, when the stock market surges, people feel wealthy, even if only on paper; when stocks plummet, people tend to close up their wallets.
“Consumers right now are more followers than leaders. They are still getting their balance sheets in order,’’ said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at research firm Moody’s Analytics. “At this point, consumers can’t be expected to lead the economic recovery.’’
Richard Burnock, emboldened by low property prices and interest rates, had been looking to buy a home. But the stock market’s nosedive makes him nervous.
“When you’re hearing all this negativity, you want to hold on to your money and not spend it,’’ said Burnock, 51, an accountant who rents in Boston. “I’m going to wait till the market stabilizes. This goes for any large purchase.’’
Anne Eisengart, a retired speech and language pathologist, has been eating out less and at more affordable places - food courts in malls instead of restaurants like Legal Sea Foods. And when her cable provider raised prices a few months ago, she downgraded her package to avoid the higher fees, saving about $15 a month.
“I can’t help but be affected,’’ said Eisengart, 60, of Boston. “I’m more anxious about the future.’’
The dismal pace at which the US economy is adding jobs and persistently high unemployment are also holding back consumer spending. Unemployment has topped 9 percent in every month except two since the recession officially ended in June 2009. Massachusetts, where the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent in June, has enjoyed a faster recovery than the nation, but the state has regained only a fraction of the overall jobs it lost in the recession.
Until Louis Goldman, 45, finds a new job - the marketing analyst was laid off in April of last year - he is being frugal. Goldman already depleted his savings and lives with his mother in Newton. “I don’t buy as many clothes, and I switched to a prepaid cellphone,’’ he said.
Even for those who find new jobs, prolonged unemployment can have a lasting impact on spending habits.
Pedro Lopez, 54, of Lawrence, was laid off in March 2008 from his job as a truck driver but recently found work as a welder after putting himself through school to learn the trade. A steady paycheck - $18 an hour - isn’t a reason to open his wallet more, not even to buy a $400 plane ticket to visit his 88-year-old ailing father in the Dominican Republic.
“I got a job, but there are no guarantees. If the company closes because of the economy, I can get laid off again,’’ said Lopez. “I’m buying everything less now, even food for my family.’’
Consumers’ renewed thriftiness hasn’t gone unnoticed among merchants and restaurateurs.
Saket Lohia, owner of Chinese Mirch, a restaurant in Framingham, can tell the economy is slowing just by what patrons are ordering, a change he detected back in June as gas prices rose.
“Customers would order drinks and appetizers before getting to their entrees. Now they go straight for the main course,’’ said Lohia, 33. “We are also seeing more takeouts. Customers are saving the 15 to 20 percent they would spend on tips.’’
Ernie Boch Jr., who runs Boch Automotive, said sales of new cars were off 25 percent during the recession and have yet to fully recover.
“The hyper frugality hasn’t really gone away since the last recession,’’ he said. “People are still cautious with their money.’’