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July 15, 2009

World Economy to US Consumer: Start spending again. NOW!

Morgan Stanley's Ruchir Sharma writes in the Economic Times how it is crucial for the global economy - and stock markets - that the US consumer begins to spend again.
Unfortunately, the news on the consumption front has been discouraging of late. It appears that the US consumer has used all the additional income from the stimulus packages to just rebuild the savings pool. The household savings ratio has risen from virtually zero in late 2007 to 6% currently. That’s a huge swing in a short span of time although it is still below the historical norm of 8%. No meaningful global economic recovery can shape up as long as the US consumer stays completely focused on increasing the savings ratio. After all, consumption drives growth, not manufacturing activity as the latter is undertaken only in anticipation of final demand.

The most important data then to track in the weeks and months ahead are US retail sales numbers. While the US consumer is unlikely to return to the spendthrift ways of the past two decades for a long time to come, a modest increase in retail sales is now required to create some sort of a virtuous economic cycle. Over time, the US consumer needs to work off the excessive leverage and gradually increase the savings rate while the rest of the world makes the necessary structural adjustments to the growth model. In the long-run, final demand trends of the developed world will play a less significant role and the growth leadership has to be provided by the emerging market consumer. But decoupling is an incremental process and given the trade and capital flow linkages, developing countries cannot pull away from the developed world too far, too quickly.

...It’s then all down to the US consumer to determine whether a global economic recovery gains traction by moving beyond the inventory rebuilding stage. If the US consumer remains in a funk and keeps on saving any additional income the world economy will at best follow an L-shaped economic path, implying that the cyclical bull market in equities is over. But even a modest revival in US consumer activity will be enough to create a positive feedback loop between production and consumption and extend the cyclical bull market in stocks till at least early 2010 when fresh challenges will emerge as the stimulus effects fade and excessive leverage in the system remains a drag.

The bears argue that the consumer will keep on retrenching this year as the economic wounds of the past year are still raw and the debt overload high. They do have history on their side: it has typically taken around three years for the US economy to find its footing after suffering a major crisis. The first phase of the Great Depression lasted three years from 1929 to 1932. In a disturbing parallel, the stock market rallied by 30% in early 1931 as industrial activity seemed to be stabilising following a market crash of nearly 50% in the previous year. But the consumer deleveraging process continued unabated that subsequently took the economy and the markets for a deeper dive. Even during a mild recession in 2001 following the tech boom-bust cycle, it took till mid-2003 for consumer spending to accelerate despite industrial activity having bottomed in late 2001 and showing a rebound in early 2002.

Arun Natarajan is the Founder & CEO of Venture Intelligence, the leading provider of data and analysis on private equity, venture capital and M&A deals in India. View free samples of Venture Intelligence newsletters and reports. Email the author at arun@ventureintelligence.in