U.S. Consumer Spending Plunges While Stimulus Boosts Incomes
A shopper carries bags outside of a Walmart store in California, U.S. (Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

U.S. Consumer Spending Plunges While Stimulus Boosts Incomes

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. consumer spending plunged in April by the most on record as widespread government lockdowns largely prevented Americans from spending federal stimulus payments in the month.

Household outlays fell 13.6% from the prior month, the sharpest drop in more than six decades worth of data, a Commerce Department report showed Friday. The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 12.8% decline.

Incomes posted a record 10.5% increase, compared with estimates for a 5.9% decline, as federal stimulus payments were distributed under the CARES Act, the report said. It showed government social benefits rose by $3 trillion in April, up from a $70.2 billion gain the prior month. That helped drive the personal savings rate to a record 33% from 12.7%.

U.S. Consumer Spending Plunges While Stimulus Boosts Incomes

But the rise in income temporarily masks the fact that people are in a fragile economic position, said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Corp.

“Unemployment insurance only offsets less than half of the loss in compensation,” Meyer said. “The reason the numbers look so extreme this month was because of the one-time checks that were sent out -- which won’t be continuing.”

A separate report Friday showed consumer sentiment stumbled in late May as pessimism built about the economic outlook. The University of Michigan’s final sentiment index fell to 72.3 from a preliminary reading of 73.7.

The coronavirus pandemic halted purchases of all but the most essential goods and services amid the lockdowns, but gradual reopenings nationwide will boost spending in the coming months. Even though the temporary income replacement will help Americans to start spending again, economists expect it will take a year or more before spending recovers to pre-virus levels.

U.S. stocks fell as investors weighed the decline in consumer spending and awaited President Donald Trump’s latest response in his escalating feud with China. The yield on 10-year Treasuries sank.

The Federal Reserve’s preferred gauge of consumer prices rose 0.5% from a year earlier, the slowest pace since 1961 and far below the central bank’s 2% target. The core price index, which excludes more-volatile food and energy costs, advanced 1%, the least since 2011.

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In a contrast with the headline income number, wages and salaries fell 8% from the prior month amid widespread job losses, reductions in hours and pay cuts. The income category of personal current transfer receipts surged 89.6%.

A separate report Friday showed U.S. merchandise trade in April slumped to the lowest level in a decade as the pandemic curtailed demand and disrupted supply lines.

After adjusting for inflation, spending fell by 13.2% in April, also the most ever, supporting forecasts for gross domestic product to shrink by a record in the April-June period. The main drivers of the monthly decline were spending on food and beverages, restaurants, hotels and health care.

(A previous version corrected the third paragraph to show benefit payments were an increase, not a level.)

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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