Is There a Hole in Our Pocket?

“Now I’ve got a hole in my pocket, a hole in my shirt, a whole lot of trouble, he said
But now the money is gone, life carries on and I miss it like a hole in the head” (Passenger – Michael David Rosenberg)

When gas prices fell dramatically last fall, I enthusiastically predicted it would be a big boost to the economy with more than $70 billion, yeah $70 BILLION, in added consumer spending flowing into the system. And I even thought the impact would be greater than normal due to the psychological boost it would provide to consumers. Why did I believe this? Because in the past, a drop in gas prices usually produced the same impact as a tax cut and consumer spending increased.

Well welcome to the 2010’s where you can’t rely on some types of historical data to forecast the future. I have been claiming since 2010 that certain past reliable economic indicators are broken and are still unreliable. And, even then, I have made at least two inaccurate predictions in the past year that were based on “rock-solid” history. Those rocks are now crushed stone.

Retail sales have been moderate and inconsistent at best since October, and that “huge” economic boost equated to a negative GDP in Q1. So what the heck happened here?

It was expected that weaker crude oil prices would hurt the energy industry; however, economists did not think crude would go so low and stay depressed for this long. It turns out that the energy markets were a significant growth engine for the entire economy and fueling considerable ancillary spending. Once the air was let out of that balloon, the economy began to stall.

However, the bigger question is: What happened to all this money the consumer pocketed from lower gas prices? If we didn’t spend it, where did the money go? Here is the speculation:

We Saved It

Some economists speculate that the savings rate has increased since the Great Recession. There were long lasting cultural changes regarding saving and spending following the Great Depression, so the thinking is people’s attitude and behavior have changed due to going through the Great Recession, and they are managing their money more responsibly.

I’m not really buying into this one. This is probably true for a small segment of the population, but I still believe this is a consumption-crazed society and it will take more than just a recession to change that.

We Don’t Think It Will Last

Consumers aren’t spending the windfall because they don’t expect gas prices to stay low. And, to a certain extent, they are correct. The average gas price is now $2.82/gal up from the low point of $1.98, but still 90¢ lower than a year ago. So maybe this money will be spent on something in the future, but not now. Technically it is “savings,” but functionally it is delayed spending. Regardless, it’s not being spent.

Nervous Consumers

There have been surveys showing people are getting more nervous about losing their jobs. This is perplexing based on the fairly positive jobs data this year. Maybe it was the announcements of future job cuts by some large corporations at the beginning of the year which spooked people.

Regardless, the gas savings has not made consumers more confident. The UM Consumer Confidence Index was 94.1 in October and 95.4 now. It did grow at the beginning of the year but was back down in May. Likewise, the Gallup Economic Confidence Index was -13 in October and -9 now. If consumers are not confident about the future, they don’t spend money in the present.

Wealthier Consumers Are Not Purchasing Luxury Items

There have been articles detailing this trend. People were spending recklessly before the recession and now could be reverting to more normal patterns. After everything that has happened and the derision of the “rich” in the news/political arena, conspicuous consumption is not as valued as it had been.

The Costs of Healthcare Are Increasing

There have been numerous articles and analyses done on the increased costs associated with healthcare. Forget about the cases where someone’s premium goes up 80%, consider a more normal case where someone’s premium went up $20 a month, and their deductible increased by $1000 at the start of 2015. Throw in some higher co-pay fees and lower reimbursements for services by your insurance company.

That means in January, just about the time people were getting ready to spend their gas dividend (economists say there is about a two month lag from when gas prices fall), their healthcare costs increased, wiping out that savings. It means that, as we tried to pocket the savings, there was a hole in this pocket.

Economists calculate the average household savings on lower gas prices will be about $700 this year. If you spend an additional $700 on healthcare during the year, you break even. If your healthcare costs rise more, you lose. Increased healthcare costs may be a big reason for disappointing retail sales in 2015 and may have contributed to the weak Q1 GDP.

It may have been a fortunate coincidence that consumers got more money from gas savings just as they were required to pay more money for healthcare. However, we may not be nearly as fortunate if gas prices rise back to previous levels just as the 2016 healthcare increases hit.

“Now I’ve got a hole in my pocket, a hole in my shirt, a whole lot of trouble, he said
But now the money is gone, life carries on and I miss it like a hole in the head
Well sometimes you can’t change and you can’t choose
And sometimes it seems you gain less than you lose”

TAGS: Market Stats
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