The U.S. once again may be emerging as a main engine for global growth -- and at an opportune time, as Europe slides into recession and China’s economy decelerates.
An improving job market, rising stock prices and easier credit are combining to lift U.S. consumer confidence and spending, with optimism measured by the Bloomberg Comfort Index near a four-year high. Personal-consumption expenditures increased by the most in seven months in February, rising 0.8 percent, the Commerce Department said last week.
“We’re entering a sweet spot for the economy,” said Allen Sinai, president of Decision Economics Inc. in New York. “We’re in a self-reinforcing cycle,” where faster employment growth leads to higher household income and increased consumer spending.
International companies, including Milan-based Gianni Versace SpA, already are benefiting. Revenue for the Italian designer will rise at a “really strong double-digit” pace this year in the U.S., compared with “a significant single-digit” amount in Europe, according to Chief Executive Officer Gian Giacomo Ferraris.
“America is doing fantastic,” he said last month.
The blossoming of the U.S. expansion comes amid a slowdown in China, until now the pacesetter for the world. While a purchasing-managers’ index rose to a one-year high in March, according to China’s logistics federation and the National Bureau of Statistics, analysts said the gain was seasonal and pointed to a separate index produced by HSBC Holdings Plc and Markit Economics that showed manufacturing contracted and export orders fell last month.
Premier Wen Jiabao cut this year’s growth target to 7.5 percent last month from an 8 percent goal in place since 2005 as officials seek to shift the economy toward more consumption. That’s down from last year’s 9.2 percent expansion.
For China and some other emerging economies, the policy goal is to “gradually bring inflation down” to help achieve a so-called soft landing, Chinese central bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan said in the southern Chinese island of Hainan today.
The 17-nation euro-area, meantime, is flirting with recession after gross domestic product fell 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter, the first contraction since 2009. Manufacturing contracted in March, and unemployment rose to 10.8 percent in February, the highest in more than 14 years, reports showed yesterday.
All this means the consumer rebound in the U.S. “is a big plus for Europe and Asia,” as companies in the two regions will see increased demand for their exports, said Joseph Carson, director of global economic research at AllianceBernstein LP in New York. The U.S. trade deficit widened 4.3 percent in January to $52.6 billion, the largest since October 2008, as imports rose to a record high.
U.S. consumer spending was the “fundamental reason” department-store sales for Prada SpA increased in the year ended Jan. 31, the maker of $2,950 perforated patent-leather handbags said March 29. The Milan-based company reported net income rose 72 percent to 431.9 million euros ($574 million) for the period, topping analysts’ forecasts.
North American deliveries of Accord sedans and Civic compacts will lead the strongest business results in at least five years for Japan’s Honda Motor Co., President Takanobu Ito forecast in January.
The 12 months ending March 2013 “will be the year of the complete rebound,” he said in an interview at the company’s Tokyo headquarters. “We’ll introduce a fully revamped Accord in the fall, and that will be a big plus to our sales.”
U.S. households spent $10.7 trillion in 2011, accounting for about 70 percent of GDP, according to the Commerce Department. That’s more than China’s total GDP of $7 trillion last year, based on International Monetary Fund figures.
“The consumer economy of the U.S. is the biggest in the world,” Sinai said.
He estimates the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index will end the year around 1,500, compared with 1,419.04 yesterday at 4:00 p.m. in New York, as growth strengthens to as much as 3 percent this year from 1.7 percent in 2011. The index has risen 13 percent since Dec. 31.
The dollar also will benefit from the shifting pattern of global expansion, said Stephen Jen, a managing partner at the London-based hedge fund SLJ Macro Partners LLP. He predicts it will rise toward parity against the Australian dollar and also gain compared with emerging-market exchange rates. The so-called Aussie climbed 0.7 percent yesterday to $1.0419.
“The world is set up to allow the undervalued dollar to reassert itself,” Jen said.
U.S. consumers helped power the global economy from 1995 through 2007, as their spending was boosted first by a run-up in stock prices and then by the housing bubble. Personal-consumption expenditures rose at an average annual inflation-adjusted rate of 3.5 percent during the period. After nose-diving in the recession, spending has recovered to grow at an annual 2.1 percent pace.
A return to the heady pre-slump days isn’t likely as households still are burdened with debt, according to Nariman Behravesh, chief economist in Lexington, Massachusetts, at IHS Inc. “The U.S. won’t be as powerful an engine as it was, maybe four-cylinder rather than six- or eight-cylinder,” he said.
That still will be welcome news for many companies.
Hennes & Mauritz AB, Europe’s second-largest clothing retailer, is “growing fast” in the U.S., where it continues to open stores, Nils Vinge, head of investor relations, told reporters on March 29. The Stockholm, Sweden-based company also sees “big potential” for its planned U.S. online business, according to Chief Executive Officer Karl-Johan Persson.
Daimler AG Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche said Feb. 9 the “U.S. certainly is the bright spot as far as the development in the recent months is concerned.” American sales of the company’s Mercedes-Benz models rose 17 percent that month compared with a year earlier. Meanwhile, Mercedes dealers in China are offering record discounts of as much as 25 percent.
President Barack Obama should get a boost in his bid to win re-election in November if the U.S. economy strengthens and the job market continues to improve. Unemployment held at a three-year low of 8.3 percent in March, and payrolls rose by more than 200,000 workers for a fourth consecutive month, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. The Labor Department will release last month’s figures on April 6.
More Americans say they are personally better off since Obama took office in January 2009 than worse off, a Bloomberg National Poll found last month. That’s the first favorable reading for the president on that question since Bloomberg began asking it in December 2010.
The U.S. is taking the lead in global growth, thanks in part to a domestic glut of natural gas, Larry Kantor, head of research at Barclays in New York, wrote in a March 22 report. Natural-gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange fell to 10-year lows last week, helping to blunt the impact of higher oil prices on the economy.
U.S. manufacturers are benefiting, with the Institute for Supply Management’s factory index climbing to 53.4 last month, beating the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey, from 52.4 in February, the Tempe, Arizona-based group said yesterday. Readings greater than 50 signal growth.
The recovery “has been an emerging-market -- really a Chinese-led -- story, with the U.S. having lagged the cycle,” Kantor said. “Now, however, the U.S. has reasserted its traditional role, and the current pickup in growth is clearly being led by the U.S.”
Americans are better positioned to spend because of the progress they’ve made in repairing their balance sheets, helped by record-low interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve, Carson said. The central bank cut the federal funds rate commercial banks charge each other for overnight loans to zero to 0.25 percent in December 2008 and has suggested it will hold there until late 2014.
Household financial obligations -- everything from mortgages and rents to property taxes and car-lease payments -- fell to a 28-year low in the fourth quarter, when measured against disposable income, according to Fed data. That ratio stood at 15.9 percent at the end of 2011, down from a record 18.9 percent in the third quarter of 2007, just before the start of the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009.
The capacity of consumers to spend “has been greatly enhanced now that financial obligations absorb a much smaller share of overall income,” Carson wrote in a March 16 report. So GDP growth this year could exceed 3 percent, he predicted.
Households also are finding it easier to borrow, as their creditworthiness increases and banks become less stingy with loans. Consumer credit rose $17.8 billion in January to $2.51 trillion, capping the biggest three-month gain in more than a decade, Fed figures show.
Even as the outlook improves, potential pitfalls remain. Increased tensions in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear program could drive oil prices higher, sapping Americans’ spending power. The U.S. also faces a potential budget crunch at the end of the year, when some $450 billion worth of tax increases and spending cuts are slated to kick in unless Congress takes action to block them.
“I hope we don’t have an accident and dive off the fiscal cliff and crash,” Sinai said.
It is “far too early to declare victory” for the economy, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said last week, according to a transcript of an interview with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer provided by the network. “We haven’t quite yet got to the point where we can be completely confident that we’re on a track to full recovery.”
Some private economists sound more upbeat.
“The American consumer is definitely coming back,” said Bluford Putnam, chief economist at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and a former official at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He predicts expansion of as much as 4 percent this year and no more Fed bond purchases after two rounds of so-called quantitative easing totaling $2.3 trillion.
“We’re in great shape for the economy to do very well this year,” he said. “Not a super-strong engine, but it will be a positive factor on global growth, as opposed to being sluggish.”