Forget the ‘wealth effect’: real wages drive U.S. consumer spending

June 12, 2013


Federal Reserve officials have touted the ‘wealth effect’ from higher stock prices and rising home values as a key way in which monetary policy boosts consumer spending and economic activity. But according to the results of a recent survey from the Royal Bank of Canada, that ethereal feeling of being richer on paper is no substitute for cold, hard cash.

Here’s how Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke explained the benefits of rising asset prices to the real economy during a press conference in September.

The tools we have involve affecting financial asset prices and those are the tools of monetary policy. There are a number of different channels – mortgage rates, I mentioned corporate bond rates, but also prices of various assets, like for example the prices of homes. To the extent that home prices begin to rise, consumers will feel wealthier, they’ll feel more disposed to spend. If house prices are rising people may be more willing to buy homes because they think that they will make a better return on that purchase. So house prices is one vehicle.

Stock prices, many people own stocks directly or indirectly. The issue here is whether or not improving asset prices generally will make people more willing to spend. One of the main concerns that firms have is there is not enough demand, there’s not enough people coming and demanding their products. If people feel that their financial situation is better because their 401(k) looks better for whatever reason, or their house is worth more, they are more willing to go out and provide the demand.

From that perspective, economists should welcome a report last week showing U.S. household wealth surged by $3 trillion, primarily on the back of gains in stock and home prices.

Still, analysts note the distribution of this increase was largely skewed towards wealthier Americans who have less of a propensity to spend new income. That could help explain the RBC survey’s findings, explained by the bank’s chief U.S. economist, Tom Porcelli, in a research note:

That wages and the jobs backdrop matter for consumption is not only borne out in the hard data, but this also came through loud and clear in our June consumer survey. When asked about what would embolden them to increase spending, nearly half of respondents noted wage increases while about 1/5 said a better job backdrop. So 65% of consumers think employment dynamics are what matter most. Contrary to popular belief, there was little “wealth effect” from stocks and housing apparent here.

The bad news: U.S. wages have been stagnant for quite a while.

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