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On the importance of consumer durables

Consumption over the business cycle

Consumption is the largest part in a household’s expenses and, for that matter, the nation’s expenses as well. Therefore it’s natural that the movements of consumption through the business cycle are of particular interest: first, because it accounts for over half of GDP; second, because it’s an essential part of the well-being of households. But not all components of consumption have the same characteristics. The consumption of government services is typically left unmeasured and may in fact be unmeasurable. As for private consumption, we like to divide it into three buckets: services (such as hair cuts, movie tickets, and medical visits), non-durable goods (such as food, newspapers, and medication), and durable goods (such as cars, televisions sets, and bathtubs). As the graph shows, these three components typically fluctuate in the same direction, but not at the sample amplitude. Indeed, if a recession hits, households usually can postpone the purchase of a new refrigerator but not daily essentials. When the economy booms again, they can afford to catch up on all the durables.

The graph above shows this as a percentage change for each component. The graph below shows the change in dollars, and the three types of consumption seem to look much more similar. The reason is that durable purchases are on average smaller than the other two, but proportionally more variable. In absolute terms, the variability of the three happens to be similar, at least for the United States. The difference here is that the average growth of services is higher than the growth for goods.

How these graphs were created: For the first, search for “Real Consumption Per Capita,” check the three series, and add them to the graph. From the “Edit Graph” tab, change units to “Percentage Change from Year Ago” and apply to all. For the second graph, change all units to “Change from Year Ago.”

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

View on FRED, series used in this post: A795RX0Q048SBEA, A796RX0Q048SBEA, A797RX0Q048SBEA

Trends and cycles

Are fluctuations in real gross domestic product driven by transitory or persistent factors? Do recessions reflect temporary declines in GDP from trend, or do they have more to do with a shift in the trend itself?

One way to answer these questions is through the lens of the permanent income hypothesis.* The PIH relates to consumer demand: To the extent that households have reasonable access to credit, their desired spending on consumer goods and services should depend primarily on their wealth (permanent income) and not on their current (or transitory) income. Household consumer spending, especially on basics such as food, shelter, and clothing, isn’t likely to change if there’s a temporary change in household income: You’re not likely to move into a smaller apartment because of a lower-than-expected year-end bonus. Yet, as the PIH tells us, consumer spending will change when changes to income are perceived to be permanent or persistent: You may very well have to move to a smaller apartment if you think you’ll be unemployed for a long time.

At the aggregate level, the PIH suggests that consumption expenditures may make for a reasonably good measure of the perceived trend in GDP. So we plot real GDP and real consumption (nondurables plus services) for the U.S. for 1947:Q1-2016:Q2. The graph uses an index for each series so the consumption series passes through the GDP series.

If we interpret consumption as trend, then the data suggest that the nature of the business cycle has changed from the early postwar period (1947:Q1-1984:Q1) to the present (1984:Q2 – 2016:Q2). Early in the sample, both trend and cycle (deviations from trend) play a visibly important role in shaping the time path of GDP. Later in the sample, however, virtually all movement in GDP is accounted for by shifts in trend GDP.

Viewed through this lens, the decline in consumer spending since the Great Recession seems especially worrisome because it suggests that households largely viewed the decline in real income in 2008-09 to be largely permanent.

* See Friedman (1957) for more on the PIH.

How this graph was created: Search for “real gross domestic product per capita” and select the first series in the results. Use the “Units” option near the top of the “Edit Graph” panel to select “Index (Scale value to 100 for chosen period)” and set the date to 1950-01-01. Then, on the “Add line” tab, search for “real consumption per capita nondurables” and add the series to the graph. Add another series to Line 2 by searching for “real consumption per capita services” in the “Customize Data” section and click “Add.” Making sure that each individual series is still in chained 2009 dollars, apply the formula a+b to Line 2. Then, just below where you set the formula, change the units for the new series to an index, using 1947-01-01 as the date, so that the lines lie on top of each other.

Suggested by David Andolfatto and Andrew Spewak.

View on FRED, series used in this post: A796RX0Q048SBEA, A797RX0Q048SBEA, A939RX0Q048SBEA

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