Almost every piece of research we’ve combed through this week has talked about the possibility of a recession.
And while there are certainly a number of global macroeconomic factors for investors to get nervous about — China, the commodity crash, geopolitical instability in the Middle East, the Federal Reserve raising interest rates — the US economy’s direction is primarily determined by one thing: consumer spending.
And this isn’t just the consumer spending captured in the monthly retail sales report, but total personal consumption as captured by the Personal Consumption Expenditures measure from the quarterly GDP report.
This measure captures spend not only on goods but on services — think cab fares, haircuts, physical therapy, etc. — which accounts for about 85% of US GDP.
Ahead of the housing-bust-induced recession and resulting financial crisis the US consumer began rolling over, drowning in what became an unsustainable sea of debt — a combination of mortgage debt and consumer debt financed from borrowing against skyrocketing home values — that eventually choked off consumers’ ability to spend any more money.
So ahead of that recession and crisis we saw two major themes play out in the US economy: people spent more and more of their income to pay off existing debts and spent less money on everything else.
Right now, neither of these dynamics are taking place.
The following chart shows that right now the US consumer continues to spend at a solid pace while spending the smallest slice of their disposable income on debt in a generation.
Of course, things are never as simple as two data points and the dislocations we’re seeing in financial markets right now are in many ways not at all related to what’s happening in the real economy (which is what we’d argue this chart is really focused on).
But when more and more folks are talking about the risks of the US economy rolling over and markets seeing a replay of something like what happened in 2008, it’s worth remembering what things actually looked like before that happened … and what they look like now.