February 16, 2013

U.S. consumer returns, but no longer on Easy Street

Since the Great Recession, it's unclear to what degree Americans are willing to take on debt and spend.

McClatchy Newspapers

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The retailers' group expects sales growth of about 3.4 percent this year, up but a slower pace than the 5.2 percent in 2012.

On the plus side, there's been a bull market for stocks and rising home prices in much of the nation. Both make some parts of the population feel wealthier, at least on paper, and boost consumer confidence.

That psychological benefit runs up against changes in lending, however. Banks require bigger down payments for home purchases, and homeowners no longer can freely borrow against the equity they've built up in their homes.

"I definitely think the results of the recession will change the habits of consumers, because they won't be able to borrow as freely as they did 10 years ago," Kleinhenz said. "We know that consumer credit has been increasing, but they are very guarded in not keeping too many balances."

Auto loans make up much of the borrowing, inflating the overall retail sales numbers. January light-vehicle sales were on a pace for a 2013 annual volume of 15.29 million cars and trucks, according to MotorIntelligence.com, an industry research group. In 2009, 10.4 million light vehicles were sold, a 30-year low.

"The happiest people at a bank right now are in the auto financing section," Richard Hunt, head of the Consumer Bankers Association, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.

Banks are sitting on $10 trillion in deposits and are eager to lend, Hunt said. But since the Great Recession, consumer demand for loans has been weak, improving slightly in recent months.

"There was a crisis, people were severely impacted by it and of course they're going to be more cautious going forward," said Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota who heads the Financial Services Roundtable, the lobby for big banks.


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