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The Globe and Mail

U.S. consumer spending up, income posts largest drop in 20 years

Shoppers carry bags as they walk down Fifth Avenue in New York in this file photo.


U.S. consumer spending rose in January as Americans spent more on services, with savings providing a cushion after income recorded its biggest drop in 20 years.

The Commerce Department said on Friday consumer spending increased 0.2 per cent in January after a revised 0.1 per cent rise the prior month. Spending had previously been estimated to have increased 0.2 per cent in December.

January's increase was in line with economists' expectations. Spending accounts for about 70 per cent of U.S. economic activity and when adjusted for inflation, it gained 0.1 per cent after a similar increase in December.

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Though spending rose in January, it was supported by a rise in services, probably related to utilities consumption. Spending on goods fell, suggesting some hit from the expiration at the end of 2012 of a 2 per cent payroll tax cut. Tax rates for wealthy Americans also increased.

The impact is expected to be larger in February's spending data and possibly extend through the first half of the year as households adjust to smaller paychecks, which are also being strained by rising gasoline prices.

Economists expect consumer spending in the first three months of this year to slow down sharply from the fourth quarter's 2.1 per cent annual pace.

Income tumbled 3.6 per cent, the largest drop since January 1993. Part of the decline was payback for a 2.6 per cent surge in December as businesses, anxious about higher taxes, rushed to pay dividends and bonuses before the new year.

A portion of the drop in January also reflected the tax hikes. The income at the disposal of households after inflation and taxes plunged a 4.0 per cent in January after advancing 2.7 per cent in December.

With income dropping sharply and spending rising, the saving rate – the percentage of disposable income households are socking away – fell to 2.4 per cent, the lowest level since November 2007. The rate had jumped to 6.4 per cent in December.

Savings were the smallest since December 2007.

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