U.S. Consumers: Done Spending, or Ready to Restart?

Consumer spending
Consumer spending

Last week, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt presented a dire view of the economy: "It's a fizzling of the great consumer bubble that was decades in the making."

Leonhardt's views are hardly outlandish, given that consumer sentiment fell in July to its lowest level in two years. Bloomberg News reported that "Americans haven't felt this bad in almost three decades," referring to the Misery Index, which reflects the sum of unemployment and inflation.

Sure, consumers aren't spending as robustly as they once were. But when you look at the numbers behind what individuals and businesses are buying, it becomes clear that U.S. consumers aren't down for the count just yet.

Retail Sales Didn't Flatline After All

In his column, Leonhardt wrote that June retail sales in June were weaker than expected. While that month's figures were hardly robust, they were, in fact, better than the 0.1% decrease expected by analysts surveyed by Reuters. The U.S. Department of Commerce showed a 0.1% increase in June retail sales.

Leonhardt also points out that "sales of ovens and stoves are on pace to be at their lowest level since 1992." Indeed, the Census Bureau showed a 12.9% decline in shipments of gas cooking appliance units, and data from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) backs these findings as well.

Although Leonhardt doesn't explain why he chose ovens as an example, they're probably a decent proxy for new home sales, since builders usually include them in their models.

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Though that trend is definitely not good, it's important to remember that consumers are waiting longer to replace big-ticket item such as appliances and cars. Big appliances aren't at the top of consumers' shopping lists: Between January and June this year, there were around 33 million major appliances shipped, little changed from a year earlier.

Wall Street, though, is bullish on Whirlpool (WHR), giving it an average price target of $99, ahead of the $75.15 where it currently trades. And in other areas of spending, consumer resilience is shining through, too.

What We're Not Cutting: iPads, Harleys, AC

While it's true that unemployment is high and the real estate market is a disaster, it's hard to argue that consumers are miserable if they're still buying iPad 2s, which start at $599, or Harley motorcycles, many of which sell for more than $10,000. Sales of the iconic motorcycles rose 7.5% in the U.S., and 5.6% worldwide in the second quarter.

And how worried can businesses be if they're splurging on new mainframes? Hardware, software, and services revenue all surged by double digits in the second quarter. It's hardly a surprise that Apple (AAPL), Harley-Davidson (HOG), and IBM (IBM) all reported better-than-expected quarterly results.

People are also spending money on air conditioners. United Technologies (UTX) reported last week that its Carrier business had an "exceptional first half of the year," which helped it report better-than-expected quarterly results. The company's shares are up nearly 13% so far this year.

Increased spending also helped boost United Technologies' other businesses. The Hartford-based company reported that all six of its business units, which include Sikorsky helicopters and Otis elevators, reported organic growth for the first time since 2008.

So, What's the Verdict -- Is Spending Sizzling or Fizzling?

Even though they may feel confident, U.S. consumers clearly don't feeling as good as they used to back in the go-go days of the 1990s. Weak home prices and continued high unemployment still stress us out.

Despite my quibbles with his methodology, Leonhardt is right when he points out that the U.S. needs to move away from an economy that's dependent on the consumer to one that's "more of an investment and production economy, with rising exports, expanding factories and more good-paying service jobs."

Unfortunately, that's much easier said than done.

So, tell us if the consumer is mighty or meek. Have you made any big-ticket purchases yourself?

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Motley Fool contributor Jonathan Berr owns no shares of the securities listed. The Motley Fool owns shares of International Business Machines and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, and creating a bull call spread position in Apple.