The U.S. Consumer Is Starting to Freak Out
Kanebridge News
    HOUSE MEDIAN ASKING PRICES AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney $1,599,192 (-0.51%)       Melbourne $986,501 (-0.24%)       Brisbane $938,846 (+0.04%)       Adelaide $864,470 (+0.79%)       Perth $822,991 (-0.13%)       Hobart $755,620 (-0.26%)       Darwin $665,693 (-0.13%)       Canberra $994,740 (+0.67%)       National $1,027,820 (-0.13%)                UNIT MEDIAN ASKING PRICES AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney $746,448 (+0.19%)       Melbourne $495,247 (+0.53%)       Brisbane $534,081 (+1.16%)       Adelaide $409,697 (-2.19%)       Perth $437,258 (+0.97%)       Hobart $531,961 (+0.68%)       Darwin $367,399 (0%)       Canberra $499,766 (0%)       National $525,746 (+0.31%)                HOUSES FOR SALE AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney 10,586 (+169)       Melbourne 15,093 (+456)       Brisbane 7,795 (+246)       Adelaide 2,488 (+77)       Perth 6,274 (+65)       Hobart 1,315 (+13)       Darwin 255 (+4)       Canberra 1,037 (+17)       National 44,843 (+1,047)                UNITS FOR SALE AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney 8,675 (+47)       Melbourne 7,961 (+171)       Brisbane 1,636 (+24)       Adelaide 462 (+20)       Perth 1,749 (+2)       Hobart 206 (+4)       Darwin 384 (+2)       Canberra 914 (+19)       National 21,987 (+289)                HOUSE MEDIAN ASKING RENTS AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney $770 (-$10)       Melbourne $590 (-$5)       Brisbane $620 ($0)       Adelaide $595 (-$5)       Perth $650 ($0)       Hobart $550 ($0)       Darwin $700 ($0)       Canberra $700 ($0)       National $654 (-$3)                UNIT MEDIAN ASKING RENTS AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney $730 (+$10)       Melbourne $580 ($0)       Brisbane $620 ($0)       Adelaide $470 ($0)       Perth $600 ($0)       Hobart $460 (-$10)       Darwin $550 ($0)       Canberra $560 (-$5)       National $583 (+$1)                HOUSES FOR RENT AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney 5,253 (-65)       Melbourne 5,429 (+1)       Brisbane 3,933 (-4)       Adelaide 1,178 (+17)       Perth 1,685 ($0)       Hobart 393 (+25)       Darwin 144 (+6)       Canberra 575 (-22)       National 18,590 (-42)                UNITS FOR RENT AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney 6,894 (-176)       Melbourne 4,572 (-79)       Brisbane 1,991 (+1)       Adelaide 377 (+6)       Perth 590 (+3)       Hobart 152 (+6)       Darwin 266 (+10)       Canberra 525 (+8)       National 15,367 (-221)                HOUSE ANNUAL GROSS YIELDS AND TREND         Sydney 2.50% (↓)       Melbourne 3.11% (↓)       Brisbane 3.43% (↓)       Adelaide 3.58% (↓)     Perth 4.11% (↑)      Hobart 3.78% (↑)      Darwin 5.47% (↑)        Canberra 3.66% (↓)       National 3.31% (↓)            UNIT ANNUAL GROSS YIELDS AND TREND       Sydney 5.09% (↑)        Melbourne 6.09% (↓)       Brisbane 6.04% (↓)     Adelaide 5.97% (↑)        Perth 7.14% (↓)       Hobart 4.50% (↓)       Darwin 7.78% (↓)       Canberra 5.83% (↓)       National 5.76% (↓)            HOUSE RENTAL VACANCY RATES AND TREND       Sydney 0.7% (↑)      Melbourne 0.8% (↑)      Brisbane 0.4% (↑)      Adelaide 0.4% (↑)      Perth 1.2% (↑)      Hobart 0.6% (↑)      Darwin 1.1% (↑)      Canberra 0.7% (↑)      National 0.7% (↑)             UNIT RENTAL VACANCY RATES AND TREND       Sydney 0.9% (↑)      Melbourne 1.4% (↑)      Brisbane 0.7% (↑)      Adelaide 0.3% (↑)      Perth 0.4% (↑)      Hobart 1.5% (↑)      Darwin 0.8% (↑)      Canberra 1.3% (↑)        National 0.9% (↓)            AVERAGE DAYS TO SELL HOUSES AND TREND         Sydney 28.7 (↓)       Melbourne 30.7 (↓)       Brisbane 31.0 (↓)       Adelaide 25.4 (↓)       Perth 34.0 (↓)       Hobart 34.8 (↓)       Darwin 35.1 (↓)       Canberra 28.5 (↓)       National 31.0 (↓)            AVERAGE DAYS TO SELL UNITS AND TREND         Sydney 25.8 (↓)       Melbourne 30.2 (↓)       Brisbane 27.6 (↓)       Adelaide 21.8 (↓)       Perth 37.8 (↓)       Hobart 25.2 (↓)       Darwin 24.8 (↓)       Canberra 41.1 (↓)       National 29.3 (↓)           
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The U.S. Consumer Is Starting to Freak Out

The flush savings accounts and cheap credit that helped keep Americans spending at high rates since 2020 are disappearing

By HARRIET TORRY
Tue, Jan 31, 2023 8:04amGrey Clock 6 min

The engine of the U.S. economy—consumer spending—is starting to sputter.

Retail purchases have fallen in three of the past four months. Spending on services, including rent, haircuts and the bulk of bills, was flat in December, after adjusting for inflation, the worst monthly reading in nearly a year. Sales of existing homes in the U.S. fell last year to their lowest level since 2014 as mortgage rates rose. The auto industry posted its worst sales year in more than a decade.

It’s a stark turnaround from the second half of 2020, when Americans lifted the economy out of a pandemic downturn, helping the U.S. avoid what many economists worried would be a prolonged slump. Consumers snapped up exercise bikes, televisions and laptop computers for schoolchildren during lockdowns. When restrictions were lifted, they rushed back to their favourite restaurants and travel destinations.

And they kept spending, helped by government stimulus, flush savings accounts and cheap credit, even as inflation picked up. Faced with four-decade-high inflation last year, Americans outspent it. Through most of 2022, consumer spending growth exceeded price increases by about 2 percentage points.

Now the forces that helped keep spending high are unwinding, while inflation remains elevated. The share of monthly income Americans set aside for savings was 3.4% in December, down from 7.5% a year earlier and from a record high in April 2020. Credit-card interest rates have been rising, and Federal Reserve officials have signalled that they plan an additional quarter-percentage point increase to the central bank’s benchmark rate this week. That would bring the rate to between 4.5% and 4.75%, from near zero at the start of last year.

Annual inflation, as measured by the consumer-price index, remained above 5% in December for the 19th straight month, the longest such streak since the early 1980s.

Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70% of the economy. A downshifting consumer is a key reason that business and academic economists polled by The Wall Street Journal, on average, put the probability of a recession in the next 12 months at 61%. However, many economists say, the U.S. might avoid a recession entirely if spending patterns stabilise.

One factor making forecasting more difficult: While unemployment is trending at a half-century low, big companies including Amazon.com Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Microsoft Corp. have begun to cut jobs.

“The last bastion of strength is the labor market, but I don’t think it can withstand all these other forces,” said Nationwide Chief Economist Kathy Bostjancic.

Recent layoff trends worry Benjamin DeLong, a 32-year-old customer-account manager at an industrial manufacturer in southern Minnesota. His savings rose to $3,700 during the pandemic, thanks in part to government stimulus. He is now down to about 3 cents.

Mr. DeLong said he had to dip into his savings to cover the rising costs of his groceries, utilities and car insurance. He has found some relief in his grocery bills since he and his partner decided last year to purchase some pigs, jointly with other families, to be raised on a relative’s farm. Their portion of meat yielded nearly 150 pounds, saving them about $500 on groceries, Mr. DeLong estimated.

The possibility of layoffs, he said, is “part of the crunch that I’m having to consider now. What’s going to happen if I no longer have an income?”

So far, jobs have remained plentiful and wages continued to rise in the face of Federal Reserve tightening. Unemployment was a low 3.5% in December. Hourly wages were up a robust 4.6% year-over-year. There were about 10.5 million unfilled jobs available in November, according to the Labor Department, a sign that demand for labor remained strong.

“Households had a ton of comfort they don’t normally have about their job prospects,” said Marianne Wanamaker, an economist at the University of Tennessee. “They knew they could get a job tomorrow if they wanted to, and that remains mostly true.”

Still, there are signs of labor-market weakness. Employers are shedding temporary workers at a fast rate, and people who lose their jobs are taking longer to find new ones. Meanwhile, the number of hours worked a week has declined for two straight months, according to the Labor Department, resulting in a slowdown in workers’ take-home pay.

Mikhail Andersson, owner of First Class Tattoo in New York City, has seen signs of weakening demand. After it was cleared to reopen from lockdowns in the summer of 2020, his business was slammed by customers flush with unemployment insurance payments and stimulus checks.

In mid-November of last year, Mr. Andersson started getting calls from clients who had booked daylong tattoo sessions, saying they could only afford shorter ones or pulling out altogether. Mr. Andersson, who specializes in tattoo projects that often take five or six all-day sessions to complete, had 15 cancellations for full-day slots in December.

“In my 15 years doing this, I’ve never seen that—people calling up and saying they don’t have the money to spend right now or can only afford an hour because their current situation is pretty bad,” he said.

For now, First Class Tattoo isn’t likely to slash prices because the baseline level of demand remains strong. Some 250 clients are still on the wait list.

Also weighing on many consumers: The rapid increase in rates in the past year, tied to Fed tightening, has pushed the cost of all types of debt higher.

Mortgage rates reached a 20-year high last fall. Some 57% of consumers were concerned about making housing payments in the fourth quarter, according to a survey by Freddie Mac, up from 48% in the third quarter.

The increases are gradually starting to slow down consumer spending, though it might take a while before the effect is fully realised.

“We’re probably going to have higher interest rates around for quite a while. You would think eventually that would dampen consumption, although that we haven’t had the full effect yet,” said Harvard University economist Kenneth Rogoff.

Credit-card balances were up 15% on the year in the third quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the largest increase in more than two decades.

Additionally, tens of millions of Americans are set to start or resume making payments on student loans later this year, after the Supreme Court rules on President Biden’s student-debt cancellation plan. Payments have been frozen since March 2020, and are scheduled to begin again 60 days after litigation is resolved or the program is implemented.

Many taxpayers will get smaller refunds when they file their returns in the coming months because Congress didn’t extend the breaks put in place at the height of the pandemic.

Most Americans who lose their jobs can expect unemployment payments for six months or less, at a fraction of their former paychecks, the same as before pandemic programs kicked in. Pandemic programs allowed Americans to receive unemployment payments for as long as 18 months, and in some cases paid workers more than their paychecks.

The previously generous jobless benefits and direct federal payments to households caused the share of income Americans save every month to hit new highs in 2020. Since then, the saving rate has fallen to roughly 3% of monthly income, from more than 30% at the start of lockdowns. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the rate was 8.8%.

The large stock-market declines over the past year also alarmed consumers, including Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Sara Laor, who is 57 years old. Ms. Laor said the declines depleted the holdings in her 401(k) and IRA accounts by nearly 40%.

Over the past year, her family has had to dip into their savings to pay for essential car and plumbing repairs. They are putting off other expenses, like buying a new car, and have given up ordering in meals.

She’s trying to spend more cautiously, shunning recipes involving pricey eggs and buying more canned food.

“Everything I do just feels like I’m a lot poorer: Can I do this or can I do that?” she said.

U.S. factories, shippers and importers are pulling back, a sign they anticipate less demand from Americans in the months ahead.

Inbound volumes at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California were down 20.1% in December from a year earlier, and have been behind 2019 levels since August. A little over a year ago, backlogs at ports were drawing President Biden’s attention.

Nicholas Hobbs, chief operating officer of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., which manages truck and rail shipments, said the company has seen demand fall off for big and bulky products, including appliances, furniture and exercise equipment—although off-price retailers with discounted inventory are shipping more.

Jazzlyn Millberry, 33, has been looking for big ways to make cuts. One day last fall, her banking app informed her that the cost of one month’s groceries and household goods for her family of four had risen to $900, from about $600 or $700.

“I find myself now going to three or four different grocery stores just to get the best deals on things to save on costs,” said Ms. Millberry, a health-insurance claims analyst in Pickerington, Ohio.

On one recent outing, she stopped at Kroger for eggs and meat, Aldi for produce, Sam’s Club for her children’s snacks, and Target for toilet paper.

Even as she has cut back on groceries, restaurants, hairstyling and facials, her credit-card balances have grown in the past several months. She said she started making only the minimum required payment on her credit cards.

—Gwynn Guilford and Paul Page contributed to this article.



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Why Prices of the World’s Most Expensive Handbags Keep Rising

Designers are charging more for their most recognisable bags to maintain the appearance of exclusivity as the industry balloons

By CAROL RYAN
Tue, Mar 5, 2024 3 min

The price of a basic Hermès Birkin handbag has jumped $1,000. This first-world problem for fashionistas is a sign that luxury brands are playing harder to get with their most sought-after products.

Hermès recently raised the cost of a basic Birkin 25-centimeter handbag in its U.S. stores by 10% to $11,400 before sales tax, according to data from luxury handbag forum PurseBop. Rarer Birkins made with exotic skins such as crocodile have jumped more than 20%. The Paris brand says it only increases prices to offset higher manufacturing costs, but this year’s increase is its largest in at least a decade.

The brand may feel under pressure to defend its reputation as the maker of the world’s most expensive handbags. The “Birkin premium”—the price difference between the Hermès bag and its closest competitor , the Chanel Classic Flap in medium—shrank from 70% in 2019 to 2% last year, according to PurseBop founder Monika Arora. Privately owned Chanel has jacked up the price of its most popular handbag by 75% since before the pandemic.

Eye-watering price increases on luxury brands’ benchmark products are a wider trend. Prada ’s Galleria bag will set shoppers back a cool $4,600—85% more than in 2019, according to the Wayback Machine internet archive. Christian Dior ’s Lady Dior bag and the Louis Vuitton Neverfull are both 45% more expensive, PurseBop data show.

With the U.S. consumer-price index up a fifth since 2019, luxury brands do need to offset higher wage and materials costs. But the inflation-beating increases are also a way to manage the challenge presented by their own success: how to maintain an aura of exclusivity at the same time as strong sales.

Luxury brands have grown enormously in recent years, helped by the Covid-19 lockdowns, when consumers had fewer outlets for spending. LVMH ’s fashion and leather goods division alone has almost doubled in size since 2019, with €42.2 billion in sales last year, equivalent to $45.8 billion at current exchange rates. Gucci, Chanel and Hermès all make more than $10 billion in sales a year. One way to avoid overexposure is to sell fewer items at much higher prices.

Many aspirational shoppers can no longer afford the handbags, but luxury brands can’t risk alienating them altogether. This may explain why labels such as Hermès and Prada have launched makeup lines and Gucci’s owner Kering is pushing deeper into eyewear. These cheaper categories can be a kind of consolation prize. They can also be sold in the tens of millions without saturating the market.

“Cosmetics are invisible—unless you catch someone applying lipstick and see the logo, you can’t tell the brand,” says Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Bernstein.

Most of the luxury industry’s growth in 2024 will come from price increases. Sales are expected to rise by 7% this year, according to Bernstein estimates, even as brands only sell 1% to 2% more stuff.

Limiting volume growth this way only works if a brand is so popular that shoppers won’t balk at climbing prices and defect to another label. Some companies may have pushed prices beyond what consumers think they are worth. Sales of Prada’s handbags rose a meagre 1% in its last quarter and the group’s cheaper sister label Miu Miu is growing faster.

Ramping up prices can invite unflattering comparisons. At more than $2,000, Burberry ’s small Lola bag is around 40% more expensive today than it was a few years ago. Luxury shoppers may decide that tried and tested styles such as Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull bag, which is now a little cheaper than the Burberry bag, are a better buy—especially as Louis Vuitton bags hold their value better in the resale market.

Aggressive price increases can also drive shoppers to secondhand websites. If a barely used Prada Galleria bag in excellent condition can be picked up for $1,500 on luxury resale website The Real Real, it is less appealing to pay three times that amount for the bag brand new.

The strategy won’t help everyone, but for the best luxury brands, stretching the price spectrum can keep the risks of growth in check.

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