Shoppers Helped Keep The Economy Out Of A Recession. Now Investors Hope For Even More

Shoppers emerge from a store, Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil)
Shoppers emerge from a store, Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil)

NEW YORK (AP) — How much spending power do U.S. shoppers have left?

That's the key question as big U.S. retailers get set to report their latest quarterly results. Even when inflation was high, interest rates were shooting upward and worries were rising that a recession seemed inevitable, U.S. consumers kept spending at a remarkably solid rate.

That strength helped avoid a recession, and other threats that had been hanging over the economy also seem to be abating.

Inflation is continuing to cool, and the Federal Reserve's next move is likely to be to cut interest rates. Sentiment among consumers is on the upswing, with households feeling more confident after a long period of inflation-driven gloom. Pay raises are helping U.S. households catch up to the jumps in prices for everything they have to buy, too.

But even as the job market remains solid, giving consumers more fuel to keep spending, other pillars of support may be weakening. Besides the resumption of student-loan repayments, spent-down savings cushions and higher credit-card balances is the simple but frustrating fact that prices for things at the market are still much higher than they were before the pandemic.

Yes, inflation is easing, but that means prices are rising at a slower rate from here, not falling back to where they were.

Coping with inflation remains U.S. consumers' top concern, except for those making more than $150,000, according to a recent survey by Morgan Stanley.

When McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski discussed his company’s latest quarterly results, he said he’s not seeing much change in behavior among middle- and upper-income customers. But “where you see the pressure with the US consumer is that low-income consumer, so call it $45,000 and under. That consumer is pressured.”

When Altria reported its latest quarterly results, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes said that “the cumulative effects of inflation and higher consumer debt levels” meant less money was available for customers to buy tobacco.

Retailers are traditionally among the last companies to report their earnings each quarter, and industry behemoth Walmart is set to report on Tuesday. Analysts expect it to report a 4% drop in earnings per share from a year earlier, according to FactSet.

The following week will include reports from AutoZone, Best Buy, eBay and Lowe's. Each should help shed some light on how different types of consumers are doing.