Thursday, June 11, 2009

American Consumer: Down But Not Out

U.S. retail sales edged up 0.5 percent in May, sparked in part by deep discounts, notably in autos. Definitely goods news, indicating the U.S. consumer is recovering. On a related note of optimism, home-improvement retailer Home Depot said fiscal year earnings may not fall as much as feared.

And yet another sign of the shifting consumer: investors are dipping into equities again. Long-term mutual funds have had positive inflows for 12-straight weeks, according to Investment Company Institute.

But reality looks more like a search for a "new normal," as noted by Mohammed El-Erian, CEO and co-CIO of Pimco. Case in point the U.S. auto sector: U.S. auto sales peaked at 17 million in 2005, but a new normal of 10 to 12 million a year going forward seems more likely and hopeful. So the consumer may be coming out of the bunker, but with unemployment on the rise and debt levels still very high, don't expect a recovery to the free-spending days of a few years ago anytime soon.