Consumer Spending Threatened by High Prices and Lower Wages

By Jason Simpkins
Associate Editor

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than 70% of the economy, will be seriously threatened in the months ahead, as prices continue to rise, wages plateau, and government stimulus checks wear thin.

Consumer spending has remained strong in recent months, even jumping 0.8% in the month of May. But that boost was largely inflated by the $50 billion in government rebate checks that were cashed and put to use in the month.

The stimulus will total $107 billion this fiscal year, but that may not be enough, as consumer prices are rising across the board. The consumer price index (CPI) increased 1.1% in June, driving the rate of inflation over the past 12 months to 5%, and it looks as though prices will continue to rise as many businesses grapple with higher raw material costs.

Sara Lee Corp. (SLE), the maker of many American food products, such as Jimmy Dean sausages, said yesterday (Monday) that it would be forced to boost the prices of its meat products by one-fifth this year.

“Price increases vary a lot by type of products but the increases will be as low as zero and some products we will decrease on and other increases [will be] in excess of 20%,” C.J. Fraleigh, Sara Lee’s chief operating officer for North America told the Financial Times.

Kraft Foods Inc. (KFT) said prices for its products will jump by 12%-13% this year, and even as much as 25% in some of its cheese categories. Kellogg Co. (K), ConAgra Foods Inc. (CAG) and Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN) are some of the food companies also planning price increases that will invariably contribute to inflationary pressures in the United States.

Meanwhile, the high price of oil has contributed to a sharp escalation in the price of gasoline and many other consumer products. For instance, global chemical producer Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) recently raised prices on all 3,200 of its products, some by as much as 20%, in the single-biggest price increase in the Michigan-based company’s 111-year history.

The problem is going to get worse in the months ahead, as a survey by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) has found that almost four times as many businesses plan to charge more for their goods and services next quarter than expect to reduce prices.

The poll of the 101 NABE members was taken between June 19 and July 10, and found that a record 75% paid more for materials last quarter and expected to pay more this quarter as well. A net 28% of respondents said they were forced to increase prices from April through June as a result.

Worse, only 20% of the businesses surveyed said salaries increased in that time, the lowest number in four years and an 11% drop from the group’s previous survey in April.  Only 9% of the respondents said they would increase payrolls over the next six months, the fewest in five years.

The information corroborates a separate report from the Department of Labor last week, which said wages, adjusted for inflation, were down 2.4% in the 12 months ended in June.

Employers have cut jobs each month in 2008, with payrolls tumbling for the sixth consecutive month in June. The total number of job losses in the first half of the year was 438,000.

The national unemployment rate has gone up by a full percentage point in the past year, to 5.5%.

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