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從一款汽車的銷售情況可以看出,美國消費者的信心已經動搖了

葛繼甫(Geoff Colvin) 2019年10月26日

對于美國和世界主要經濟體來說,美國消費者的心情是否會變壞,特別是什么事情會讓他們的心情變壞,是一個特別值得關注的問題。

現在,請你四下看看,然后回答這樣一個問題:你身邊的人都處于什么狀態?

為了所有人的工作、收入、退休金、房子和其他福利著想,我們最好希望所有人都保持樂觀的心態。目前,美國消費者的樂觀心態,正在以前所未有的力度推動美國經濟的增長。不過最新的研究顯示,美國人的心態或許很快就會發生搖擺。

雖然最近有很多文章稱,美國經濟已經出現了一些衰退的跡象,不過從消費者的消費活動來看,他們對這些警告完全視而不見,依然泰然自若地花錢——即便扣除通脹因素,美國消費者的人均消費水平也超過了歷史上的任何一個時期。消費一直是美國經濟的最大貢獻因素。尤其是最近一段時期,美國消費者算是超水平發揮了。過去五年,消費對美國GDP增長的貢獻率達到了85%。房利美的經濟學家最近總結道:“消費支出仍然是推動美國經濟持續擴張的最重要的力量。”美國經濟已經連續增長超過10年了,對于這輪創紀錄的增長,美國消費者是不折不扣的英雄。

不過,那些還記得10年前發生的事的人,很可能會心生不寒而栗之感。消費者的狂熱消費,正是導致美國經濟在2003年至2007年快速增長的主要推力,隨后,美國便迎來了過去70年間最嚴重的經濟衰退。不過,今天的消費主力軍并非當年那些即便債臺高筑也要“買買買”的購物狂。恰恰相反,他們算得上是模范公民了。在上次經濟危機前,美國的家庭債務一度攀升至GDP的99%,如今這一比例僅為76%。在2006年和2007年的經濟繁榮期,美國的個人儲蓄率居然下降為零,而現在則回升到8.1%,是一個比較穩妥的比例。對此,世界大型企業聯合會(Conference Board)的消費者信心調查負責人林恩·弗蘭科表示:“上一次經濟衰退的嚴重性,改變了美國消費者的行為。他們是‘一朝被蛇咬,十年怕井繩’。”

目前,美國的老百姓兜里有錢,失業率處于50年來的最低水平,實際工資不斷上漲,消費者似乎完全可以繼續“撒幣”,無限期地推動GDP的增長。然而歷史告訴我們,這是不可能的。對于美國和世界主要經濟體來說,美國消費者的心情是否會變壞,特別是什么事情會讓他們的心情變壞,是一個特別值得關注的問題。

就業疲軟是摧毀消費者信心的頭號殺手,即便是有工作的人也在擔心這個問題。米奇·列維是貝倫堡資本市場公司的經濟學家,同時也是多家美聯儲銀行的顧問。他表示:“只需要幾個非常糟糕的就業數據,就可能導致消費者信心和支出的下降。”貿易爭端的不斷升級也會影響消費者的信心。就在美國總統特朗普宣布可能要與中國開始貿易爭端之前,世界大型企業聯合會和密歇根大學聯合開展了一項調查,詢問了消費者一些開放性問題,看哪些因素會影響他們的信心,結果表明,消費者最關心的就是關稅和貿易爭端問題。密歇根大學負責消費者信心調查的首席經濟學家理查德·科廷表示:“消費者去超市,看到玩具、衣服、消費電器等很多商品都漲價了,肯定會感到經濟形勢很嚴峻。”

看到這里,你肯定會想,美國消費者的信心是否已經開始動搖了?對這個問題,休旅車的銷量是一個值得關注的指標,因為休旅車(比如房車)是一種昂貴的非生活必需品,只要消費者對經濟形勢比較擔憂,就很有可能推遲休旅車的購買。去年,休旅車的銷量只是稍有下滑,今年則大幅下降,這也是2007年以來,休旅車的銷量首次出現全年下滑。曼哈頓公寓樓的房價也很能體現出有錢一族的心態。根據房地產公司Douglas Elliman的報告,曼哈頓的房價也開始疲軟,同時通過抵押貸款方式買房的消費者越來越多。你可能以為,高收入階層在買房時應該不會太斤斤計較,然而實際上,只要他們對經濟形勢有清晰的認識,他們就會成為第一個捂緊錢袋子的人。

另一個對當前經濟形勢有清醒認識的群體是企業的CEO們,他們對經濟形勢幾乎都持悲觀態度。目前,世界大型企業聯合會發布的CEO信心指數(根據9月的一項調查數據編制)顯示,CEO們的信心已經下降到了2009年年初以來的最低水平。就在一年前,CEO們還大多認為,當時的經濟狀況比6個月前有所好轉,并認為經濟還會繼續增長。但現在,他們大都認為經濟形勢正在趨于惡化,而且會變得更加糟糕。

經濟的走向是由億萬普通消費者的日常決策決定的。那么他們的信心水平如何呢?很可能已經開始趨于悲觀了。世界大型企業聯合會今年 9月的調查數據顯示,美國消費者的信心目前仍然處于非常高的水平,但較8月大幅下降。今年9月,《財富》雜志聯合SurveyMonkey網站對美國的1萬多個家庭進行了調查,詢問受訪者是否預計未來12個月內將出現經濟衰退,持有肯定看法的受訪者占了三分之二。

不過,消費者的信心并非預測經濟衰退的一個可靠指標。消費者信心的下跌總是先于經濟衰退出現,這也是它為什么是一個十分重要的指標。然而即便是在經濟繁榮時期,消費者的信心有時也會突然下跌,然后回升。這些都表明,肯定還有更多因素影響著消費者的信心。

諾貝爾獎得主、知名經濟學家羅伯特·席勒認為,他已經找到了這個神秘的因素,那就是講故事的力量。他表示:“人們的信心是由故事推動的,我們不能將它單純地簡化為信心本身。”比如在上一次經濟繁榮時期,“每個人都聽過一些言之鑿鑿的‘造富神話’,比如某人賣房賺的錢比你工作一年賺的錢還多。”席勒的新書《敘事經濟學》(Narrative Economics)里提供了很多這樣的例子,從中可以看出,歷史上的很多繁榮與蕭條,與這些“故事”都有密切的關系。席勒指出:“我現在特別關注的一個‘故事’,就是圍繞著人工智能技術的敘事——很多人認為,人工智能技術有一天會取代幾乎所有的工作崗位。”這種敘事如果被社會媒體放大,再加上實際就業率的下降,就很有可能會讓消費者的情緒從樂觀變成悲觀,進而導致增長的引擎熄火。

所有的經濟衰退,都會演變成一個自我強化的惡性循環,但只要消費者保持樂觀,這種循環就無法持續下去。要想知道經濟走勢何去何從,我們既要仔細監測信心數據,同時也要仔細辨別你聽到的故事里隱含的意義。

同時,為你自己也為他人好,最好還是多傳播一些陽光的故事。(財富中文網)

本文另一版本登載于《財富》雜志2019年11月刊,標題為《美國消費者剖析》。

譯者:樸成奎

Look to your left and your right and then answer this question: What’s the mood of the people around you?

For the sake of everyone’s jobs, incomes, retirement funds, homes, and much else, we’d better hope the mood stays upbeat. Much more than usual, the consumer’s sunny disposition is propelling the U.S. economy’s growth. But the latest research suggests a mood swing may be underway.

In their shopping, consumers are blithely ignoring the daily articles about the latest signs of a looming recession. Unperturbed, they’re spending with gusto—more per capita than ever in history, even after adjusting for inflation. Their spending has long been the largest component of America’s economy; over the past several years, consumption has accounted for 67% to 69% of U.S. GDP. But lately, consumers have been outdoing themselves, contributing 85% of America’s GDP growth over the past five years. Fannie Mae’s economists recently concluded, “Consumer spending remains the most important force driving the continued expansion of the U.S. economy.” Shoppers are the heroes of this record-setting expansion, 10 years old and counting.

Those who remember back more than 10 years may shudder. Frenzied consumption is exactly what fueled the ebullient growth of 2003 to 2007, before it all collapsed into the worst recession of the past 70 years. But today’s consumers aren’t the debt-crazed shopping fiends of those days. Just the opposite: Financially, they’re model citizens. Before the last recession, household debt climbed to 99% of GDP; today, it’s only 76%. As the economy boomed in 2006 and 2007, the personal savings rate fell, bizarrely, to zero; today, it’s a prudent 8.1%. “The severity of the last recession has altered consumers’ behavior,” says Lynn Franco, who oversees the Conference Board’s consumer confidence survey. “They were scarred.”

With households nowhere near tapped out, unemployment at a 50-year low, and real wages rising, it seems consumers could comfortably keep up their heroic GDP-driving performance indefinitely. Yet history says they won’t. The great question for the U.S. and world economies is whether U.S. consumers’ mood will sour, and specifically what might spook them into pulling back.

Job weakness is the No. 1 candidate, frightening even people who are still working. “A couple of really bad employment numbers would probably lead to a decline in confidence and spending,” says Mickey Levy, an economist at Berenberg Capital Markets and an adviser to several Federal Reserve banks. An escalating trade war could also dent the consumer psyche. The latest surveys by the Conference Board and the University of Michigan—conducted before President Trump announced a potential trade deal with China—asked respondents open-ended questions about what worries them; the top answers were tariffs and trade wars. “The weakest point now is that tariffs will drive up consumer prices,” says Richard Curtin, chief economist for Michigan’s consumer sentiment surveys. “It could be a sobering experience for consumers going to the store and seeing prices of many things rising—toys, clothing, consumer electronics.”

You can’t help wondering if consumers are already starting to waver. Sales of recreational vehicles are worth watching because RVs are expensive nonnecessities, an easy purchase to postpone if buyers are worried. Sales fell slightly last year and are down sharply this year—their first full-year decline since 2007. Manhattan apartment prices offer a glimpse into the minds of high-income consumers, and those prices are weakening, the Douglas Elliman real estate firm reports; in addition, more buyers are using mortgages. You might think high-income home buyers would be the last people to pinch pennies, but they could also be among the first if they have a clearer view of economic trends.

A group with an even clearer view is CEOs, and they’re almost despondent. The Conference Board’s CEO confidence index, based on a September poll, has plunged to the lowest reading since early 2009, in the gloomiest days of the last recession. Only a year ago, the CEOs mostly thought economic conditions were better than they had been six months earlier and would keep getting better. Now they mostly think conditions are worse and will get worse still.

As for ordinary consumers—the mass of buyers whose daily decisions steer the economy—their view may be darkening at this moment. The Conference Board’s September reading shows consumer confidence at a still-extraordinarily high level but down sharply from August. A Fortune-SurveyMonkey poll of more than 10,000 households in September asked respondents if they expected a recession in the next 12 months. Two-thirds said yes.

But consumer confidence is an unreliable predictor of recessions. It always declines before downturns—that’s why it’s crucially important—but it sometimes drops just as deeply in the midst of booms, then bounces back. All of which suggests there must be more going on in consumers’ heads.

Nobel prize–winning economist Robert Shiller thinks he has found the missing factor. It’s the power of story. “People are motivated by narratives,” he says. “It’s not distilled down just to confidence.” In the last boom, for example, “everyone heard concrete stories about someone making more money selling their house than you made working all last year,” he notes. His new book, Narrative Economics, offers many such examples of stories going viral, fueling booms and busts through history. “One narrative I’m particularly concerned about now is the A.I. narrative—the idea that technology will take over almost all jobs,” he says. That narrative, if amplified by social media and combined with real employment declines, could tip the consumer mood from positive to pessimistic—shutting down the growth engine.

All recessions become a self-reinforcing downward spiral, but the spiral can’t function as long as consumers stay hopeful. To sense where we’re headed, monitor the confidence data and also listen carefully to the tenor of the stories you’re hearing.

And for your own good, spread sunshine.

A version of this article appears in the November 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Anatomy of an American Spender.”

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