Cautious but steady consumers buoy hopes for US economy

WASHINGTON — Call it the Goldilocks consumer.

Defying high inflation and sharp interest rate hikes, Americans keep spending — a trend that, if sustained, could keep the economy humming just enough to help avoid a much-predicted recession.

At the same time, surveys show that consumers on average don’t expect today’s still-high inflation to last for very long. That confidence could lead them to moderate their spending habits and wage demands, which would help slow inflation over time.

If the combination lasts, it could make it easier for the Federal Reserve to tame inflation without derailing the economy. As inflation eased, the Fed would be able to curtail its rate hikes, making a recession less likely.

“The economy is in the middling phase,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of Global Data Retail. “It’s not too hot but not too cold, especially for retail. Things are not in the boom phase, but neither have they collapsed.”

Nearly three years after the pandemic caused a brief but brutal recession and then a powerful rebound, the economy appears to have entered a phase in which growth might not be so forceful as to fuel high inflation. One reason is that consumers are continuing to spend — just not at breakneck speed.

Consider the spending habits of Francisco Santana, who was stocking up on groceries recently at a Walmart in North Bergen, New Jersey. A New York City resident, Santana, 39, bought several hundred dollars’ worth of bacon, sugar, hamburger buns and cream cheese — among the necessities he said should feed his family of five for a couple of weeks.

Yet Santana says he’s spending with caution. The inflation surge had led him to shift his grocery shopping from local chains to Walmart. He found a package of strawberries there for $5, he said, that might have cost twice that at some other stores he’s shopped.

“I’m looking for quality and budget,” he said. “Inflation’s still a big issue.”

Consumer surveys, closely tracked by the Fed, show that two years into the worst bout of inflation in four decades, Americans’ expectations for future inflation remain modest and by some measures nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.

Lower inflation expectations matter because they can become self-perpetuating: When people expect inflation to stay high, they typically demand and receive higher pay. Businesses then often charge their customers more to offset their higher labor costs, further fueling inflation. In that way, rising inflation expectation scan turn high prices from a temporary disruption, like an oil supply crunch, into something longer-lasting.

But lower inflation expectations can reverse that dynamic and help cool inflation.

Asurvey by the New York Federal Reserve Bank found that the typical consumer expects inflation to be just 2.7% in three years, down from 4.2% in the fall of 2021 and barely above the level in January 2020.That’s far below the current inflation rate of 6.4%. Shorterterm inflation expectations are higher: The median consumer expects inflation of 5% in a year. Still, that’s down from a peak of 6.8% last June.

By contrast, in January 1980, when U.S. inflation soared well into the double-digits, expectations for inflation one year ahead peaked at 10.4%, according to a separate survey by the University of Michigan.

“If I think prices are going to go up in the future, I think, well, this looks expensive, but I better get it now because it’ll be more expensive tomorrow,” said Laura Veldkamp, a finance professor at Columbia Business School.” Andso then I’m willing to pay much higher prices. But I think now people don’t have in mind that things are going to be a lot more expensive next year.”