Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Jun 6, 2023

Mid-Year U.S. Consumer Outlook: Spending, Savings and Travel

With Michelle Weaver and Sarah Wolfe
Mid-Year U.S. Consumer Outlook: Spending, Savings and Travel


Michelle Weaver Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Michelle Weaver from the Morgan Stanley U.S. Equity Strategy Team. 

Sarah Wolfe And I'm Sarah Wolfe from the U.S. Economics Team. 

Michelle Weaver On this special episode of the podcast, we're taking a look at the state of the U.S. consumer as we approach the midyear mark. It's Tuesday, June 6th at 10 a.m. in New York. 

Michelle Weaver In order to talk about where the consumer is right now, let's take it back two and a half years. It's January 2021, and households are slowly emerging from their COVID hibernations, but we're still months away from the broad distribution of the vaccine. Consumers are allocating 5% more of their wallet share to goods than before COVID, driving record consumption of electronics, home furnishings, sporting goods and recreational vehicles. All the things you needed to make staying at home a little bit better. Our U.S. economists at Morgan Stanley made a high conviction call in early 2021 that vaccine distribution would flip the script and drive a surge in services spending and a payback in goods spending. Sara, to what extent has this reversion played out and where do you think the U.S. consumer is now? 

Sarah Wolfe The reversion is definitely played out, but there's been some big surprises. Basically, the spending pie has just been greater overall than expected, and that's thanks to unprecedented fiscal stimulus, excess savings and significant supply shortages. So we've not only seen a shift away from goods and toward services, but a much larger spending pie overall. The result has been a 13% surge in goods inflation over nearly three years, an acceleration in services inflation, and a return to pre-COVID spending habits that's much greater in real spending terms than in nominal terms. So if we look in the details, where has the payback been the largest? We've seen the biggest payback in home furnishing, home equipment, jewelry, watches, recreational vehicles, but we've seen the most robust recovery in discretionary services like dining out, going to a hotel, public transportation and recreational services. 

Michelle Weaver Sarah, has the recent turmoil in the banking sector affected the U.S. consumer and do you think there's a credit crunch going on right now? 

Sarah Wolfe Bank funding costs have risen meaningfully and are expected to rise further, leading to tighter lending standards, slower loan growth and wider loan spreads. But let me be clear, this is not a credit crunch, nor do we expect it to be. We think about the pass through from tighter lending standards to the consumer to ways directly and indirectly. The direct channel is tighter lending standards for loans on consumer products, including credit cards and autos, and indirectly through tighter lending standards for businesses, which has knock-on effects for job growth. We've already seen the direct channel of consumer spending in the past year, as interest rates on new consumer loan products hit 20 to 30-year highs, raising overall debt service costs and forcing consumers to reduce purchases of interest sensitive goods. Dwindling supply of credit as banks tighten lending standards is also dampening consumption. 

Michelle Weaver Great. And given that credit is getting a little bit tougher to come by, can you tell us what's happening with savings and what's happening with the labor market and labor income? 

Sarah Wolfe This is very timely. Just a few days ago, we got a very strong jobs report for May. I think that this really supports our call for a soft landing, and even though consumers are increasingly worried about the economic outlook, about financial prospects, it's clear that we still have momentum in the economy and that the Fed can achieve its 2% inflation target without driving the unemployment rate significantly higher. We are seeing under the details that consumer spending is slowing, there's a pullback in discretionary happening, there's a bit of trade down behavior. But with the labor market remaining robust, it's going to keep spending afloat and prevent this hard landing scenario. Michelle, let me turn it to you now, let's drill down into some specifics. What are the latest spending trends around spending plans you're seeing in your consumer survey? 

Michelle Weaver Sure. So consumers expect to pull back on spending for most categories that we asked them about over the next six months. And the only categories where they expect to spend more are necessities like groceries and household products. We also added two new questions to this round of the survey to figure out which discretionary categories are most at risk of a pullback in spending. We asked consumers to order categories based on spending priority and identify categories where they would pull back on spending if forced to reduce household expenses. We found that travel and live entertainment were most at risk of a pull back, and this isn't just a case of income groups having different attitudes towards spending, we saw similar prioritization across income cohorts. 

Sarah Wolfe So you mentioned travel, travel's been in a boom state in the post-COVID world. But you're saying now that households are reporting that they would pull back if they needed to. Are we seeing that already? What do we expect for summer travel? What do we expect for the remainder of the year? 

Michelle Weaver So the data I was just referencing was if you had to reduce your household expenses, how would you do it? And travel was identified there. So that's not a plan that's currently in place. But summer travel may be a bit softer this year versus last year. In our survey, we asked consumers if they're planning to travel more, the same amount or less than last summer, and we found that a greater proportion of consumers are planning to travel less this year. Budgets are also smaller for summer travel this year, with more than a third of consumers expecting to spend less. We're seeing a mixed picture from the company side. Airlines are seeing very strong results still, and Memorial Day weekend proved to be very strong.. But the data around hotels has started to weaken and the revenue per available room that hotels have been able to generate has been pretty choppy and forward bookings that hotels are seeing have actually been flat to down for the summer. Demand for resorts and economy hotels has fallen but demand for urban market hotels still remained very strong. Sarah, how does this deceleration, both services and goods growth play into your team's long standing argument for a soft landing for the economy? 

Sarah Wolfe It's really the key to inflation coming down and avoiding a hard landing. With less pent up demand left for services spending and a strong labor market recovery, supply demand imbalances in the services sector are slowly resolving themselves. We estimate that there's a point three percentage point pass through from services wages to core core services inflation throughout any given year. Core core services, is services excluding housing inflation. So with compensation for services providing industries already decelerating for the past five quarters, we do expect the largest impact of core services inflation to occur in the back half of this year. So that's going to see a more meaningful step down in inflationary pressures later this year. This combined with a rising savings rate, so a shrinking spending pie, means that there's just going to be less demand for goods and services together this year. Altogether, it will enable the Fed to make progress towards its 2% inflation target without driving the economy into a recession. 

Michelle Weaver Sarah, thank you for taking the time to talk. 

Sarah Wolfe It was great speaking with you, Michelle. 

Michelle Weaver And thanks for listening. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and share the podcast with a friend or colleague today. 



Consumers in the U.S. are largely returning to pre-COVID spending levels, but new behaviors related to travel, credit availability and inflation have emerged.