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从一款汽车的销售情况可以看出,美国消费者的信心已经动摇了

葛继甫(Geoff Colvin) 2019年10月26日

对于美国和世界主要经济体来说,美国消费者的心情是否会变坏,特别是什么事情会让他们的心情变坏,是一个特别值得关注的问题。

现在,请你四下看看,然后回答这样一个问题:你身边的人都处于什么状态?

为了所有人的工作、收入、退休金、房子和其他福利着想,我们最好希望所有人都保持乐观的心态。目前,美国消费者的乐观心态,正在以前所未有的力度推动美国经济的增长。不过最新的研究显示,美国人的心态或许很快就会发生摇摆。

虽然最近有很多文章称,美国经济已经出现了一些衰退的迹象,不过从消费者的消费活动来看,他们对这些警告完全视而不见,依然泰然自若地花钱——即便扣除通胀因素,美国消费者的人均消费水平也超过了历史上的任何一个时期。消费一直是美国经济的最大贡献因素。尤其是最近一段时期,美国消费者算是超水平发挥了。过去五年,消费对美国GDP增长的贡献率达到了85%。房利美的经济学家最近总结道:“消费支出仍然是推动美国经济持续扩张的最重要的力量。”美国经济已经连续增长超过10年了,对于这轮创纪录的增长,美国消费者是不折不扣的英雄。

不过,那些还记得10年前发生的事的人,很可能会心生不寒而栗之感。消费者的狂热消费,正是导致美国经济在2003年至2007年快速增长的主要推力,随后,美国便迎来了过去70年间最严重的经济衰退。不过,今天的消费主力军并非当年那些即便债台高筑也要“买买买”的购物狂。恰恰相反,他们算得上是模范公民了。在上次经济危机前,美国的家庭债务一度攀升至GDP的99%,如今这一比例仅为76%。在2006年和2007年的经济繁荣期,美国的个人储蓄率居然下降为零,而现在则回升到8.1%,是一个比较稳妥的比例。对此,世界大型企业联合会(Conference Board)的消费者信心调查负责人林恩·弗兰科表示:“上一次经济衰退的严重性,改变了美国消费者的行为。他们是‘一朝被蛇咬,十年怕井绳’。”

目前,美国的老百姓兜里有钱,失业率处于50年来的最低水平,实际工资不断上涨,消费者似乎完全可以继续“撒币”,无限期地推动GDP的增长。然而历史告诉我们,这是不可能的。对于美国和世界主要经济体来说,美国消费者的心情是否会变坏,特别是什么事情会让他们的心情变坏,是一个特别值得关注的问题。

就业疲软是摧毁消费者信心的头号杀手,即便是有工作的人也在担心这个问题。米奇·列维是贝伦堡资本市场公司的经济学家,同时也是多家美联储银行的顾问。他表示:“只需要几个非常糟糕的就业数据,就可能导致消费者信心和支出的下降。”贸易争端的不断升级也会影响消费者的信心。就在美国总统特朗普宣布可能要与中国开始贸易争端之前,世界大型企业联合会和密歇根大学联合开展了一项调查,询问了消费者一些开放性问题,看哪些因素会影响他们的信心,结果表明,消费者最关心的就是关税和贸易争端问题。密歇根大学负责消费者信心调查的首席经济学家理查德·科廷表示:“消费者去超市,看到玩具、衣服、消费电器等很多商品都涨价了,肯定会感到经济形势很严峻。”

看到这里,你肯定会想,美国消费者的信心是否已经开始动摇了?对这个问题,休旅车的销量是一个值得关注的指标,因为休旅车(比如房车)是一种昂贵的非生活必需品,只要消费者对经济形势比较担忧,就很有可能推迟休旅车的购买。去年,休旅车的销量只是稍有下滑,今年则大幅下降,这也是2007年以来,休旅车的销量首次出现全年下滑。曼哈顿公寓楼的房价也很能体现出有钱一族的心态。根据房地产公司Douglas Elliman的报告,曼哈顿的房价也开始疲软,同时通过抵押贷款方式买房的消费者越来越多。你可能以为,高收入阶层在买房时应该不会太斤斤计较,然而实际上,只要他们对经济形势有清晰的认识,他们就会成为第一个捂紧钱袋子的人。

另一个对当前经济形势有清醒认识的群体是企业的CEO们,他们对经济形势几乎都持悲观态度。目前,世界大型企业联合会发布的CEO信心指数(根据9月的一项调查数据编制)显示,CEO们的信心已经下降到了2009年年初以来的最低水平。就在一年前,CEO们还大多认为,当时的经济状况比6个月前有所好转,并认为经济还会继续增长。但现在,他们大都认为经济形势正在趋于恶化,而且会变得更加糟糕。

经济的走向是由亿万普通消费者的日常决策决定的。那么他们的信心水平如何呢?很可能已经开始趋于悲观了。世界大型企业联合会今年 9月的调查数据显示,美国消费者的信心目前仍然处于非常高的水平,但较8月大幅下降。今年9月,《财富》杂志联合SurveyMonkey网站对美国的1万多个家庭进行了调查,询问受访者是否预计未来12个月内将出现经济衰退,持有肯定看法的受访者占了三分之二。

不过,消费者的信心并非预测经济衰退的一个可靠指标。消费者信心的下跌总是先于经济衰退出现,这也是它为什么是一个十分重要的指标。然而即便是在经济繁荣时期,消费者的信心有时也会突然下跌,然后回升。这些都表明,肯定还有更多因素影响着消费者的信心。

诺贝尔奖得主、知名经济学家罗伯特·席勒认为,他已经找到了这个神秘的因素,那就是讲故事的力量。他表示:“人们的信心是由故事推动的,我们不能将它单纯地简化为信心本身。”比如在上一次经济繁荣时期,“每个人都听过一些言之凿凿的‘造富神话’,比如某人卖房赚的钱比你工作一年赚的钱还多。”席勒的新书《叙事经济学》(Narrative Economics)里提供了很多这样的例子,从中可以看出,历史上的很多繁荣与萧条,与这些“故事”都有密切的关系。席勒指出:“我现在特别关注的一个‘故事’,就是围绕着人工智能技术的叙事——很多人认为,人工智能技术有一天会取代几乎所有的工作岗位。”这种叙事如果被社会媒体放大,再加上实际就业率的下降,就很有可能会让消费者的情绪从乐观变成悲观,进而导致增长的引擎熄火。

所有的经济衰退,都会演变成一个自我强化的恶性循环,但只要消费者保持乐观,这种循环就无法持续下去。要想知道经济走势何去何从,我们既要仔细监测信心数据,同时也要仔细辨别你听到的故事里隐含的意义。

同时,为你自己也为他人好,最好还是多传播一些阳光的故事。(财富中文网)

本文另一版本登载于《财富》杂志2019年11月刊,标题为《美国消费者剖析》。

译者:朴成奎

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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