Inquiring minds are reading American Incomes Head Down, Threatening Recovery in Spending.

“Consumers have started to change their behavior and they are going to save more,” said Richard Berner, co-head of global economics at Morgan Stanley in New York and a former researcher at the Fed. “You have pressure on wages, you have employment still declining.”

Wages and salaries, which drive recoveries in spending, fell 4.7 percent in the 12 months through June, the biggest drop since records began in 1960, according to Commerce Department figures released yesterday. The Obama administration’s tax cuts, extended jobless benefits and a one-time Social Security bonus have helped mask the damage done by the worst employment slump since the Great Depression.

Personal incomes, which include interest income, dividends, rents and other payments as well as wages, tumbled 1.3 percent in June, more than forecast and the biggest drop in four years, yesterday’s Commerce report showed. Excluding the effects of the stimulus plan, June incomes would have dropped 0.1 percent after no change in May, according to the report. In May, one-time additional payments to Social Security recipients boosted incomes 1.3 percent.

One of every 10 American workers will be without a job by early 2010, economists project, shaking the confidence of those still on payrolls and discouraging spending. It may take as long as 15 years for consumers to fully repair finances battered by the decline in home values, stocks and employment, said Edmund Phelps, winner of the Nobel prize in economics in 2006.

Decreasing pay is not the only hurdle for consumers. Plunging home prices and stocks reduced household net worth by a record $13.9 trillion from the third quarter of 2007 through this year’s first quarter, according to figures from the Fed.

“Households are going to have to do an awful lot of rebuilding of their wealth,” Phelps, a professor at Columbia University in New York, said this week in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “Even if that rebuilding goes on at a pretty good clip, it will take 12 or 15 years for households to get to the wealth level that they had several years ago. Consumer demand is going to take a long time to rebuild to normal levels.”

As for unemployment, I think we see 10% by September or October at the latest. Right now I am sticking with my forecast of 9.8% by August.

In regards to balance sheet repair, 15 years has ominous implications for jobs and the stock market.

In regards to rebuilding wealth, “never” may be a better estimate than 12-15 years for boomers now retiring. Those boomers need to draw down savings during retirement while stock market gains will likely be hard to come by.

Of course most of that “wealth” was all imaginary in the first place, especially in regards to home prices.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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