Consumers: What fiscal cliff?

We're creeping closer to "taxmaggedon," but America's consumers don't seem terribly concerned.

The University of Michigan's consumer confidence index hit a five-year high for October, the Wall Street Journal points out. That suggests that most ordinary Americans are either unaware of or unconcerned about the fiscal cliff, despite the direct hit that it could have on their pocketbooks. 

(Capital Economics)

There are other signs of renewed confidence: Retail sales rose 1.1 percent in September, buoyed by sales at electronic stores — which experienced the largest increase since October 2011, with 4.5 percent growth — and online retailers, points out JPMorgan's chief ecomist Michael Feroli. Retail vehicle sales also saw a 1.3 percent increase in September, and building materials sales rose 1.1 percent.

But the rising confidence has also left some analysts scratching their heads. "Admittedly, gasoline prices fell marginally and the recovery in housing may have played a role," says Amna Asaf, an economist with London-based research firm Capital Economics. "But equity prices have fallen back too, employment growth remains lackluster and, unless Congress acts to avert the fiscal cliff, households are only two months away from a big jump in marginal tax rates."

The fiscal cliff is also poised to hit ordinary Americans directly through the expiration of the payroll tax holiday in 2013. The average American household is likely to be hit by a $1,000 increase in payroll taxes unless the holiday is renewed, which neither party seems eager to do. (The Wall Street Journal has a handy calculator here if you want to see how much your payroll taxes will rise without an extension.) 

So while confidence is high right now, consumers may be on track for a rude awakening toward the end of the year.

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