There is almost nothing that damages consumer confidence as badly as a rapid rise in prices. Starbucks recently increased the price of a bag of coffee by 17% because wholesale prices have risen by almost twice that rate in the last year. Cotton prices nearly doubled in 2010 but has fallen this year. But, apparel is made months in advance of when they reach store shelves. Summer clothing prices are up as much as 20%. That may change in the fall, but for the time being, the consumer’s ability to buy even the most basic clothing has been undermined. Consumers today pay more for sugar, meat, and corn-based products as well.
2. Investments have begun to yield less
Part of the recovery was driven by the stock market surge which began when the DJIA bottomed below 7,000 in March 2009. The index has risen above 12,000 and the prices of many stocks have doubled from their lows. As result, American household nest eggs that were decimated by the collapse of the market have rebounded and enabled people to splurge on themselves. However, the market has stumbled in the last quarter. The DJIA is up only 1% during the last three months and the S&P 500 is down slightly. Americans, though, have have few other places to put their money.. Ten-year Treasuries yield about 3%. Gold was a good investment over the last year, but it has begun to falter as well. The market may not be a friend to investors for quite some time.
3. The auto industry
The auto industry has staged an impressive comeback, although its profitability is based as much on the layoffs it has made over the last five years as generating new sales. GM and Chrysler have emerged from bankruptcy. Year-over-year monthly sales improved late last year and through April. May sales stalled. GM’s revenue dropped by 1% compared to May of 2010. Ford’s sales were down about as much. There are many reasons for this trend including high gas prices and the constrained manufacturing capacity of the Japanese automakers because of the earthquake. Consumers also may be deferring big purchases because they are worried about their economic prospects. Slow car sales are not just a sign of lagging consumer confidence. They also may be a harbinger of tougher times ahead. These companies shed several hundreds thousand jobs before and during the last recession. Car firms have only just begun to hire again, but that trend will die with a plateau in sales.
4. Oil prices
Oil prices are supposed to drop as the economy slows as they did in 2008 and early 2009 when crude fell from over $140 to under $50. That drop at least allowed consumers and businesses like airlines to more easily afford fuel. Recently, crude has moved back above $100 and appears to be stuck there regardless of the economic situation. American budgets have been hurt by the rising cost of gas. Americans of more modest means have been particularly affected. A slowdown in driving usually also leads to a decline in the retail sector as consumers reduce unnecessary travel to stores. The impact on other businesses is just as great. Airlines suffer and so do firms which rely on petrochemicals. OPEC, for now, has signaled it will not increase production.
5. The federal budget
The federal budget deficit has decimated any chance for another economic stimulus package which many prominent economists like Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman say is essential to create a full recovery. His theory has become more of an issue as GDP growth slows to a rate of 2%. The first $787 billion Obama stimulus package may have saved some American jobs, but it is long over and did not work if a drop in unemployment and a sharp improvement in GDP were its primary goals. The deficit has caused a call for severe austerity measures which have already become part of the economics policies of countries from Greece to the UK to Japan. Job cuts in the U.S. will not be restricted to the federal level. A recent UBS Investment Research analysis predicted that state and local governments will cut 450,000 jobs this year and next. That process is already well underway. States like California and New York currently run massive deficits and the rates they must pay on bonds has risen accordingly. Newspaper headlines almost daily report on battles between state unions and governors over employment and benefits.